by Greg Sarris
THE LITERARY WORK
A clan of indigenous Pomo Indians struggles with the challenges of poverty in multiethnic northern California.
Greg Sarris was born in Santa Rosa, California, in 1952 and educated at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and at Stanford University, where he earned a Ph.D. He returned to UCLA to teach American Indian and other literatures before becoming a professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. In his teaching and writing, Sarris explores a multicultural world that reflects his own ancestry and upbringing. His father descends from Miwok, Pomo, and Filipino ancestors; his mother from Irish and Jewish ancestors. Adopted at birth, Sarris left his foster home as a young boy, then lived with a succession of families, some of whom he found out later were his relatives. By his junior-high and high-school years, he was spending time with Indian and Mexican gangsters on Santa Rosa’s streets. At 16 Sarris was informally adopted by Mabel McKay (1907-93), a leading Pomo medicine woman and traditional basket-maker (her baskets are on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.). McKay helped Sarris turn his life around. Later she would become a key subject in his writings. Sarris’s first book, Keeping Slug Woman Alive: A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts (1993), collects a number of his academic articles on Native American and crosscultural issues. Focusing on his adopted aunt, his second book, Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream (1994), combines biography with reflections on the complete history and culture of Pomo, Miwok, and other California Indian peoples. Published the same year as Grand Avenue, it provides a nonfiction counterpart to the novel’s portrait of contemporary Pomo life. In the same decade that he produced both of these works, Sarris was four times elected to the position of tribal chair of the Coastal Miwok Indians. He also sponsored a bill that would achieve recognition of the Coastal Miwok as a tribe under federal jurisdiction once again. In the midst of this activism, Sarris has continued to teach and write, producing new works that portray struggles common to present-day Indians such as those featured in Grand Avenue.
California Indians and the arrival of whites
Scholars estimate that about 300,000 or more American Indians occupied California when the first white settlers—Spanish missionaries and colonists—began arriving in the late eighteenth century. Then as now, California offered unusual blessings to its inhabitants. The coast teemed with fish, shellfish, seals, otters, and other sea life; in spring and early summer the rivers abounded with spawning salmon; deer, elk and other large-prey animals abounded on the plains and hills of the great interior valleys. In the marshes and river valleys north of San Francisco Bay, the various peoples who would later be called the Pomos fished, hunted, and gathered berries, acoms, and other wild plant foods. Like their neighbors, they did not practice agriculture, owing in large part to the region’s natural bounty. Yet even without practicing agriculture (which usually allows greater population density than hunting and gathering), California Indians comprised what some scholars believe may have been the densest and most culturally diverse collection of native peoples in North America.
As elsewhere in the Americas, however, contact with Europeans brought catastrophe for California’s native populations. During the Spanish and Mexican periods—from the 1770s to 1845—disease, enslavement, and outright murder reduced the collective Indian population by about one-half, to an estimated 150,000. Sweeping epidemics did worse damage than they otherwise would have because of the Spanish drive to concentrate Indians in settlements around Catholic missions to convert them to Catholicism. The hope was that such settlements would induce the Indians to adopt sedentary farming, monogamous marriage, and other ways of life thought to be in step with civilization and Christian ideals. Meanwhile the settlements conveniently provided the Spanish missionaries with a ready pool of slave laborers. So the strategy had devastating consequences for the Indians, promoting disease among them, facilitating their enslavement, and disrupting their own traditional culture, deeply demoralizing those who survived these consequences. Impacted most severely were Indian peoples in southern California. For a time, Pomos and other northern peoples remained less accessible, but in 1817 the Spanish established a mission at San Rafael on Coastal Miwok lands, just south of Pomo lands. The Pomos’ southern neighbors, Coastal Miwoks, occupied the area between Pomo territory and San Francisco Bay —their days of liberty numbered. With the help of soldiers, Spanish priests forced Miwoks and southern Pomos into the mission settlement.
Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821, and under Mexico’s new Spanish-descended rulers, white incursions into California accelerated, as did the enslavement of Indians. Most of the slaves worked on large farming and livestock ranches such as those around Santa Rosa, which was founded in 1833 and soon became a regional distribution center for agricultural produce. Mexican immigrants seized the best lands, including the fertile areas along the banks of Santa Rosa Creek, where the ancestors of the fictional clan in Grand Avenue are described as once having lived. Many Pomos and other enslaved Indians were also sent south to work out the remainder of their lives away from California on large ranches in Mexico. At about the same time, the subgroups of Kashaya Pomos to the north became one of the peoples to suffer the depredations of Russian traders, who had gradually extended their fur-trapping empire south from Alaska. From the 1820s to the 1840s, the Russians raided middle and northern Pomo villages for slave labor.
Mexican rule in California lasted only until the arrival of Anglo-American squatters in the 1840s and the transfer of California to the United States under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Just days before the treaty’s signing, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill—in former Miwok lands to the east of the Pomos—and the California Gold Rush began. More than 100,000 Americans flooded into the region within a short few years, leading to California’s becoming the 31st state in 1850. All this turmoil resulted in a new rash of devastating consequences for native groups. The rush of migrants, on top of the transfer to U.S. control, led to frequent and bloody confrontations between Indians and the U.S. Army or local militias. It became common as well for lawless whites to shoot Indians for sport with impunity. By 1860 a combination of disease, starvation, and homicide had further devastated California’s Indian population, leaving only an estimated 35,000 of the 150,000 who survived in the 1840s. The numbers would continue to dwindle, to some 30,000 by 1900—about 10 percent of the population that had existed when the whites arrived just over a century earlier.
While other works by Sarris deal with these historical events, they form the backdrop for Grand Avenue but play little overt role in this novel. Instead, its stories focus on the ways in which the cultural disruption that resulted from the Pomos’ history has continued to inform their contemporary existence. Only near the end of the last story, “The Water Place,” does Nellie Copaz, the elderly medicine woman and Porno basketmaker who features in several of the stories, put into words what has loomed over the preceding pages. As she passes her traditional skills on to her young relative Alice, Nellie tells the girl, “Look at what the Spanish did, then the Mexicans, then the Americans. All of them, they took our land, locked us up. Then look at what we go and do to one another” (Sarris, Grand Avenue, p. 222). Nellie’s lament refers to the violent past as recounted in the stories of the extended family to which she and Alice belong, the suggestion being that the feuding and infighting hark back to the cultural disruptions the clan has suffered as Pomos.
The Pomos in the twentieth century
The stories in Grand Avenue are set in the mid-1990s, but by incorporating the memories of older characters such as Nellie Copaz, they effectively span the entire twentieth century. Indeed, the oldest character, Sam Toms (Nellie’s uncle by marriage), celebrates his 100th birthday in the story “Sam Toms’s Last Song,” indicating that he was born sometime in the mid-1890s. At that point perhaps 1, 000 Pomos survived; slowly the population would recover. By the 1990s those identifying themselves as Pomos were approaching pre-contact numbers, at nearly 5,000. Like Sarris, the vast majority of these—probably close to 90 percent—were of mixed ancestry, reflecting several generations of intermarriage both with other Indians (such as neighboring Miwoks) and among modern California’s numerous ethnic groups. Aside from the economically dominant whites, large numbers of blacks moved to California from the rural South starting in the 1920s. Also, Mexicans, Filipinos, and Portuguese migrants joined the diverse peoples drawn to the Santa Rosa area to harvest agricultural products for the wealthy, mostly white farm owners. Each of these groups is represented in Grand Avenue, whose stories reflect both the area’s contemporary diversity and the labor that spurred it. Characters of mixed ancestry find work picking or processing prunes, grapes, apples, and other fruits the area has historically produced in abundance.
THE POMOS AND THEIR NEIGHBORS
The Pomos’ pre-contact population is estimated to have been between 5,000 and 8,000, or approximately 5 percent of the total number of Indians living in California before the whites’ arrival. A collection of subgroups, the population did not consider itself to be a cultural unit; the name Pomo, of uncertain origin, reflected white observers’ grouping of them based on shared cultural traits. Pomos spoke seven related but mutually unintelligible languages of the Hokan language family, of which three survive today. A scattered population, the subgroups lived among some 100 villages on the coast, inland valleys, and foothills north of San Francisco Bay. Ethnologists have divided these villages into northern, central, and southern tiers, noting also the distinct role played by the Pomo in their immediate vicinity. The Pomo shared a sophisticated coinage system based on money made from clamshells and magnesite, which have been called their silver and gold respectively. Their elaborate coinage gave the Pomos a role as the bankers for their neighbors, who included the Coastal Miwok to the south, the Wappo, Lake Miwok, Wintun, and Patwin to the east, and the Yuki to the north.
In the early twentieth century, the U.S. Government established a number of small reservations for the Pomos—amounting to a fraction of their ancestral lands—in northern California’s Lake, Mendocino, and Sonoma counties. Starting in the 1950s, however, the Pomos were affected by a change in federal policy regarding Indian reservations. Concerned about the persistent poverty and isolation of reservation life, white officials on the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs decided that it would be best for Indians to assimilate into mainstream American life. With the proclaimed goal of promoting “complete political equality” for Indians, the federal government enacted a series of so-called “termination” laws, which laid out procedures for abolishing Indian reservations (Trigger and Washburn, p. 241). The Pomos were among native tribes in California and other states (for example, Utah, Oregon, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Texas) with whom the Bureau of Indian Affairs “negotiated” over the effective loss of their communal lands. In reality white officials informed Indian leaders that their peoples had little choice in the matter (Trigger and Washburn, p. 241).
THE BLOODY ISLAND MASSACRE
Storytelling plays an important role in Pomo culture, and oral history has provided a valuable way to pass on information to future generations. In Keeping Slug Woman Alive: A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts (1993), Greg Sarris writes that some stories are still told about the brutal events following the discovery of gold in 1848, when white Americans—many of them violent, greedy, and unscrupulous—began flooding into California. Some of those stories recall the Bloody Island Massacre, in which the U.S. Army virtually wiped out an island village of Pomos in 1850. The army was taking revenge for the murder of two whites, whom the Pomos had killed. The two whites had enslaved the Indians, murdering many and subjecting others to torture and sexual abuse, and the Pomos had risen in revolt. “Of course’” writes Sarris in a passage that illuminates Grand Avenue, “for the Pomo the wars continue today… the wars of the dispossessed taken away from their ancient lands, cut off from many of their traditions, and relegated to the margins of society where their struggles against invisibility are undermined by poverty, disease, and inadequate education” (Sarris, Keeping Slug Woman Alive, p. 55).
The termination period lasted from the 1950s until President Richard Nixon abandoned the policy in 1970. Despite its eventual abandonment, termination had a long-term impact. As intended, termination accelerated an urbanizing trend that had already begun in the 1940s, contributing greatly to the movement of 122,000 Indians into America’s large cities between 1940 and 1960. Although from a national standpoint only a small proportion of reservations were terminated, those of the Pomos and other California Indians were among them.
Termination is not mentioned specifically in Grand Avenue, but the stories clearly depict its results. Historically, the policy played a large part in the migration of Pomos from area reservations into nearby cities such as Santa Rosa. Many of the characters in the stories share the same squalid, run-down neighborhood on Grand Avenue, the Santa Rosa street that gives the collection its title. The stories’ depiction of the poverty in which its characters live reflects the unfortunate reality for many of the urban poor—both Pomos and others—in cities such as Santa Rosa in the 1990s. These “others” include many different Indian peoples. The Grand Avenue of the stories “is far from grand”; rather it is “an Indian ghetto, and Indian people would easily be able to substitute other such street names for similar neighborhoods in any city or town in America with a significant Indian population” (Miller in Lobo and Peters, p. 42).
Like most of those other neighborhoods, Grand Avenue is a racial mix—Indians, African Americans, Mexicans—of those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. One feature of the neighborhood is a park frequented mutually by old people, children, and gangs; another is a slaughterhouse whose owner uses it at night as a place of assignation for the neighborhood girls he recruits into prostitution. Work for most of those who live on Grand Avenue is seasonal, low paying, and punishing—picking fruit in the apple fields or packaging in the local cannery. Indian families form and reform as economic needs demand in overcrowded ‘apartments’ that are actually refurbished army barracks separated by mud tracks.
(Miller in Lobo and Peters, p. 42)
Activism and the Native American Renaissance
While termination drove Indians to the cities with some disastrous consequences, it also had a second, more positive effect. Termination led to greater unity and more effective activism for Indians, encouraging their banding together into a single, formidable political group. Many members of this group viewed the policy of termination as well intended but misguided. As Indian leaders went to the courts in the fight to retain the reservations’ federally protected status, a number of national organizations emerged. The earliest and most influential of the major ones was the National Congress of American Indians. Founded in 1944 “to preserve Indian cultural values,” the NCAI led the fight against termination through the 1960s: “Reservations do not imprison us,” the NCAI’s “Declaration of Indian Rights” stated, “they are our ancestral homelands, retained by us for our perpetual use and enjoyment” (Trigger and Washburn, p. 252). Ultimately the struggle against termination helped give rise to relatively radical groups and incidents in the 1960s. In California, in 1968-69, Indians from a mix of tribes seized control of Alcatraz Island, site of an abandoned federal prison in San Francisco Bay. Holding the island for 19 months, the Indians protested how ineffectively the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs dealt with Indian problems and won national attention to the plight of their peoples. In 1973 the group known as the American Indian Movement (AIM) seized the town Wounded Knee, South Dakota, for 10 weeks to protest broken government treaties and dire conditions on the surrounding reservation. One Indian was killed and another wounded in the incident.
Out of this activist atmosphere, in turn, arose a broader cultural and political movement that historians have termed the Native American Renaissance. Beginning in the 1960s, the movement features Indians who have sought not only to reclaim and revive their traditional cultures, but also to reinterpret those cultures within a variety of contemporary contexts, from the law and politics to scholarship and literature. Much in the daily life of these traditional cultures carried an artistic dimension:
Art is not on the decorative edges of Indian cultures, but alive at the functional heart: in blankets that warm bodies, potteries that store food, songs that gather power, stories that bound peoples, ceremonies that heal… .
(Lincoln, p. 12)
As a university professor and author concerned with the place of traditional Indian cultures in a multicultural society, Greg Sarris is himself a leading example of this renaissance. His stories achieve an “extraordinary fusion of cultural inheritance and imaginative innovation” ascribed to Indian writers who propel the renaissance (Ramsey in Lincoln, p. 10). Sarris also portrays the movement in its larger-than-literary sense in Grand Avenue, through characters such as Steven Pen, narrator of the story “Secret Letters.” An urban Pomo married to an Apache woman, Steven tells his children stories about their ancestors and demands that they draw lessons from the tales to apply in their present-day lives.
With one exception, “Sam Toms’s Last Song,” the ten stories that make up Grand Avenue are narrated in the first person. All the stories are set in urban Santa Rosa, though reference is made to events that occurred on and off Pomo reservations nearby. The narrators range widely in background and age, but they belong either by birth or by marriage to the same large extended family and include children, teenagers, adults, and the elderly. The stories themselves contain only scattered clues about who’s who in the extended family, but Sarris prefaces the work with a family tree that includes all the narrators and other major characters.
POMO RESERVATIONS IN THE 1990s
By the 1990s some two-thirds of the Pomos lived off-reservation, in cities like Santa Rosa or in smaller towns nearby. Yet nearly all could count friends and family members among; the remaining one-third, and the reservations, which the Pomos called “rancherias,” remain a potent symbol even for those living elsewhere. Their reservations are all the more significant to the group because they represent a victory, fought over many years and won in 1983, to restore the federal status that had been undone in the termination era of the 1950s. In many cases, however, the land had since been sold; thus Porno communities struggled to repurchase land for reservations that existed only in law. In the 1990s the Pomos held some 17 rancherias, varying in size from several hundred acres (such as the large Kashaya Pomo reservation at Stewart’s Point), to a few with no land at all.
“The Magic Pony”
—narrated by Jasmine, the teenage daughter of Frances. With her cousin Ruby, her mother, her aunts, her grandmother Zelda, and assorted other relatives, Jasmine lives in the Hole, “a no-color brown refurbished army barracks at the end of Grand Avenue” in Santa Rosa (Grand Avenue, p. 5). The story follows two parallel lines: an unsuccessful love affair between Ruby’s mother Faye and a shabby, degenerate white man, Jerry; and Ruby’s obsession with a pony that she and her cousin Jasmine discover. Earmarked for slaughter, the pony awaits its fate along with other horses at a nearby slaughterhouse. After Jerry leaves her, Faye becomes emotionally unbalanced, and Ruby burns down a barn at the slaughterhouse in order to free the horse.
“The Progress of This Disease”
—narrated by Anna, the wife of Albert Silva and the mother of Jeanne, Frankie, and six others. Anna struggles to deal with her young daughter Jeanne’s cancer:
I took myself to the library, read books, learned so much about the disease I came to speak its language, which is a hollow tongue of numbers and strange words. That’s why Dr. Kriesel goes on with me about counts and cells. But I moved beyond her. I read about Laetrile, coffee enemas, diets of brown rice and sprouts, support groups—none of which I had time or money for. Visualization seemed the ticket. It’s free for the effort. Picture the body healthy. See flowers and things.
(Grand Avenue, p. 41)
As Anna tries to help her daughter, she recollects moments from her own childhood. Anna recalls, among other memories, her aunt Sipie’s death, which is referred to from various points of view in some of the other stories that follow. Dewey, Anna’s uncle, is commonly held to have poisoned his sister Sipie by witchcraft; the family believes the “poison” to have traveled through the generations to Jeanne, causing her cancer.
—narrated by Anna’s son Frankie, a boy of 13 or 14, who has a crush on his second cousin Ruby. Frankie and his friends draw straws to see who will enter the slaughterhouse barn at night, when a local pimp uses the building as a brothel. Frankie is chosen, and accordingly he sneaks inside. Yet he cannot bring himself to report back what he has seen: his young cousin Ruby, dancing drunkenly with two prostitutes. Ruby is wearing lipstick and a “tight red dress that would never let me see the color red again in peace” (Grand Avenue, p. 71). Frankie sneaks out numbly as the pimp summons her to his Cadillac.
“Waiting for the Green Frog”
—narrated by Nellie Copaz, an elderly medicine woman and traditional basketmaker. Nellie, who appeared briefly in the previous story, describes the songs that accompany her visions and healing powers, and that also dictate the designs for her baskets. The songs are associated with a magical green frog, which visits her from its home in the riverside wetlands where her Porno ancestors once lived.
—narrated by Albert Silva, a Portuguese American married to Anna, the father of Frankie and Jeanne. On his way home one evening Albert picks up a sexy and provocative young hitchhiker, a girl who turns out to be only 16. As he realizes that she is related to him through his wife, he struggles with himself, disturbed and tempted by her seductive suggestion that they “go somewhere” (Grand Avenue, p. 93).
“How I Got to be Queen”
—narrated by Alice, daughter of Anna’s cousin Mollie and sister of Justine (whom the reader now understands is the unnamed girl of the previous story). Alice looks after their younger brothers while Justine, the “queen,” parties with her friends (Grand Avenue, p. 130). After Justine begins seeing a black boy named Ducker Peoples, Alice watches her sister knock down a much smaller girl, perhaps Ducker’s sister, who has come to call Ducker home. When the girl’s older sisters show up spoiling for a fight, it is Alice, not Justine, who scatters them by firing a shotgun into the air.
“Sam Toms’s Last Song” —
the collection’s only third-person narrative follows the events of Sam Toms’s 100th birthday. Toms lives with his great-granddaughter Linda in a unit in the Hole, turning over his monthly Social Security check to her in exchange for her caring for him. Told by a white doctor that he is going die soon, Toms makes a plan: he will move in down the street with Nellie Copaz, who will look after him better than the inattentive Linda. Nellie, however, despises Toms, who has wronged her in the past. She tricks him into giving up his powerful songs, which he has used to poison rather than to heal. Knowing she can use them to heal, she catches them in a basket, and sends him home in defeat.
“The Indian Maid”
—narrated by Stella, the youngest daughter of Zelda. Stella recalls her mother’s stories about working as a maid for Mrs. Benedict, the elderly invalid mother of a wealthy white grower known for mistreating Indians. Like the death of Sipie, the Benedict subplot is alluded to in several of the stories; see below, “The Water Place”.
—narrated by Steven Pen. A Pomo, Steven is married to Reyna, an Apache woman. They have two children, Shawn and Raymond. Steven at first seems unrelated to the clan at the stories’ center, but he is harboring a longheld secret. As a teenager he fathered a child with Pauline, one of Zelda’s daughters, who lived nearby. Over the years, from a distance, he has kept track of the boy, whose name is Tony. Now Tony is a successful high-school athlete, and—in hopes of offering him guidance—Steven has begun writing him anonymous letters. In the course of the story, Steven’s family learns of his secret son and of his anonymous letter writing, but as that happens Steven reveals a deeper secret to the reader.
“The Water Place”
—narrated by Nellie Copaz. Alice, the narrator of “How I Got to be Queen,” approaches Nellie and begins to learn traditional basketmaking from her, along with the songs and other medicine techniques that are associated with Nellie’s craft. Alice’s apprenticeship spurs Nellie to recall events that played central roles in the clan’s past: their troubled history with the Benedicts, the wealthy growers on whose land near Santa Rosa Creek the clan once lived; and the death of Sipie, Alice’s grandmother and Nellie’s cousin. Family history and basketmaking intertwine themselves to form a bond between generations:
I told her where the best willows grew. After that I showed her how to strip the willow branches and how to trim and split sedge roots. Then I explained the different designs… . It took about a week for me to explain the basics. I talked. She listened. She never said a word, never asked questions until I was finished talking; then it was always the same thing. She would say, “Tell me about when you saw Sipie. Can you start with the part when you got to the house?” I would tell the story… . Then, and only then, would she ask something about baskets.
(Grand Avenue, pp. 218-19)
To start her own basket, Alice ties a perfect knot on her first try, something that normally takes weeks for a beginner to accomplish. The story concludes on a note of optimism as Nellie sees a vision of “this girl named Alice singing sure as tomorrow” (Grand Avenue, p. 229).
Basketmaking and survival
From a literary standpoint, baskets function in Grand Avenue as metaphoric repositories of the Pomos’ traditional culture. The metaphor is most clearly suggested when Nellie catches Sam Toms’s powerful healing songs in her basket. Also basketmaking represents the weaving of a cultural fabric that can be passed on through the generations. Nellie repeatedly likens it to the telling of stories from the family’s past, which she interweaves with her lessons to Alice. Basketmaking furthermore connects Nellie to the land where her clan once lived, the sacred “water place” on Santa Rosa Creek where sedge and willow—the basketmaker’s materials—grow. The water place is where her animal helper, the green frog, dwells. From there it seeks Nellie out with the songs that she uses both in healing and in creating her basket designs.
Baskets and basketmaking have had a historical significance that corresponds to the literary prominence Sams gives them in Grand Avenue. Before contact with the whites, Pomos, like other California Indians, used baskets for carrying, cooking, storage, processing plants into goods or food, trapping fish, and many other purposes. Yet the baskets’ technical sophistication rose far above the level necessary for the people’s mere material survival. Basketmaking was the major art form in Pomo culture, and more than one observer has ranked the Pomos’ traditional baskets as the finest in the world. Pomos were the only native people in California who both coiled and twined their baskets, using a twining method (called lattice twining) that was itself unique among their neighbors. Pomo baskets ranged from the size of a pencil eraser to several feet in diameter and length. The most sophisticated baskets were made by women; men restricted themselves to simpler, more strictly functional patterns.
The role of this advanced art form did not end with the whites’ arrival. Instead it was extended in new directions. Dispossessed of their lands and facing a flood of white settlers in the late nineteenth century, Pomos realized that their beautiful baskets were highly prized by white traders, who sold them to art collectors and museums. Baskets thus became the Pomos’ most important resource for raising cash, with which some Pomo communities were able to purchase small pockets of land from the white settlers. Others traded baskets for food, as Sarris’s adoptive aunt Mabel McKay remembers her own family members did to avoid starvation one particularly harsh winter. In the late nineteenth century some Pomo men learned the women’s more sophisticated techniques so that they, too, could weave baskets to sell to white traders.
The traditional skills languished in the assimilationist atmosphere of the 1950s, and during the 1960s young Pomo activists tended to focus on political action more than cultural preservation. By the 1980s, however, the preservation of traditional culture had been embraced in the activists’ agenda as part of the Native American Renaissance. Among the Pomos, a new generation of young weavers arose under the tutelage of Mabel McKay and others. This younger generation included women such as Susan Billy, who (recalling Alice’s apprenticeship in Grand Avenue) learned the art from her great aunt, acclaimed basketmaker Elsie Allen (1899-1990). The Pomo women basketmakers had organized themselves politically by this time, waging campaigns to preserve the wetlands where their traditional materials of sedge and willow grow. In the 1990s a basketry revival was underway; Susan Billy and her generation, in turn, began teaching their own students. Pomo baskets fetched good prices not only from collectors but also from tourists, who flocked to northern California’s popular wine country nearby. In retrospect, throughout the Pomos’ history, the resilient art form of basket-making has persevered as a primary means of material and cultural survival.
Sources and literary context
Sarris’s own personal experience of Santa Rosa and its Pomo community constitutes the major source for Grand Avenue. Included in that experience, however, are memories that others, and especially Mabel McKay, have shared with him. Sarris’s adoptive aunt clearly provided the inspiration for much of the character of Nellie Copaz, the only one of Grand Avenue’s narrators whose voice the reader hears in two stories. In Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream, Sarris describes Mabel McKay in terms that have much in common with the fictional Nellie. Just as Nellie tells Alice stories about their family, so did Mabel McKay frequently tell the teenaged Sarris “stories about places and people she knew” (Sarris, Mabel McKay, p. 49). Sarris emphasizes how instrumental the stories were in giving him a sense of family and of being cared for—the same reassuring feelings that Nellie’s stories offer Alice. Like Nellie, Mabel McKay was thought to possess supernatural healing powers that she linked to her basketmaking, much as Nellie does in the stories. Sarris describes both women as being sought out by others as healers.
A further detail concerning both Mabel McKay and her own mentor, a well known basketmaker and medicine woman named Essie Parrish, also found its way into Grand Avenue. Before Essie Parrish died in 1979, Sarris recounts, she predicted that rain, thunder, and lightning would occur on the day of her death. Although she died on a clear July day—when such weather is unusual in northern California—the sky darkened and the phenomena did indeed happen as foretold. According to a note at the end of Mabel McKay, rain and thunder also attended Mabel McKay’s death in 1994. In the story “Secret Letters,” the tale that Steven Pen tells his children concerns his great-grandmother, a powerful medicine woman whose death brought rain, thunder, and lightning.
By incorporating supernatural phenomena into his fiction, Sarris observes a tradition established by other contemporary Native American novelists such as James Welch and Scott Momaday, both considered founding authors of the Native American Renaissance’s literary dimension. For example, in Welch’s Fools Crow (1986; also in Literature and Its Times), the hero, a young Blackfeet warrior, encounters talking animals and experiences visions of the future. In Momaday’s The Ancient Child (1989) the hero turns into a bear at the end of the novel. Critics have seen such departures from conventional realism, to which these and other native authors otherwise generally adhere, as reflecting a perception of reality in keeping with that of their ancestral traditions.
Two of the stories in Grand Avenue were previously published in anthologies, “How I Got to be Queen” in Talking Leaves (a 1991 collection of American Indian writing) and “Slaughterhouse” in Best ojthe West Short Fiction (1993). “Slaughterhouse” has proven especially popular among anthologists, and has since been included in at least three other collections.
Grand Avenue in its entirety was strongly acclaimed upon publication, with critics praising its closely observed detail, its unsentimental yet moving portrayals, and its persuasive evocation of a range of authentic narrative voices. Michael Doms, at the time a leading American Indian writer himself, reviewed Grand Avenue together with Mabel McKay for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, calling them “a dazzling pair of books” that “vault Sarris’s subjects—and the author himself—into brilliant, enduring relief” (Dorris, p. 2). Dorris praised Grand Avenue’s “vivid blend of street-smart toughness and traditional spirituality” as illuminating “the ways that poverty disrupts relationships, does violence to every social institution, [and] forges an anger that, unchecked, can erode even the impulse of human kindness” (Dorris, p. 2). Calling Grand Avenue “a gritty, power-filled book, unsparing and unapologetic,” he wondered how Sarris is able to capture his disparate characters’ voices so perfectly; the answer, he suggests, is that Sarris is “a master listener” (Dorris, p. 2).
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_____. The Population of the California Indians 1769-1970. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.
Dorris, Michael. “An Insider’s Ear: Greg Sarris Captures the Complexity of Both His Fictional and Nonfictional Characters.” The Los Angeles Times Book Review, 4 September 1994, p 2.
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Sarris, Greg. Grand Avenue. New York: Penguin, 1995.
_____. Keeping Slug Woman Alive: A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
_____. Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream. Berkeley: versity of California Press, 1994.
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