Sarris, Greg 1952-
Sarris, Greg 1952-
(Gregory M. Sarris)
Born February 12, 1952, in Santa Rosa, CA; son of Emilio Arthur Hilario and Mary Bernadette Hartman; adopted son of George and Mary Sarris. Ethnicity: "American Indian/Filipino/Irish/Jewish." Education: University of California, Los Angeles, B.A., 1978; Stanford University, M.A., 1981, 1988, Ph.D., 1989.
Home—Los Angeles, CA. Office—Fax: 707-578-2299.
University of California, Los Angeles, professor of English, beginning 1989; Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, Fletcher Jones Professor of English, 2000-05; Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, CA, holder of Graton Rancheria Chair, 2005—. Word for Word Theater Company, chair, 1995—. Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, chief, 1993-94, 1994-95. Turner Broadcasting System, consultant on California Indians.
First Americans in the Arts, Screenwriters Guild, PEN, Authors Guild, Authors League of America.
Santa Fe Film Festival Award, best screenplay, and American Indian Film Festival Award, both 1996, for Grand Avenue; Best Reads Award, California Indian Booksellers, 1996; Bay Area Theater Critics Award, best play, 2002, for Mission Indians.
Keeping Slug Woman Alive: A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1993.
Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1994.
(Editor and contributor) The Sound of Rattles and Clappers: A Collection of New California Indian Writing, University of Arizona Press (Tucson, AZ), 1994.
Grand Avenue (short stories), Hyperion (New York, NY), 1994.
Grand Avenue (television miniseries; based on his short story collection), Home Box Office, 1996.
Watermelon Nights: A Novel, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1998.
(Editor, with Connie A. Jacobs and James R. Giles) Approaches to Teaching the Works of Louise Erdrich, Modern Language Association of America (New York, NY), 2004.
The Last Human Bear (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 2007.
Greg Sarris, who has both Miwok and Pomo blood, has become a recognizable figure in the fight of California Native Americans to reclaim lost land and obtain federal recognition, and also to forge a voice in which they can tell their own story. Rising from a childhood that was spent roaming from household to household, running with gangs, and held back by poverty, Sarris overcame challenges to become a scholar and an award-winning author.
In addition, Sarris has served several terms as the elected chair (or chief) of the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria. This group of tribes, which includes more than 1,000 California Indians of Miwok and southern Pomo ancestry, was restored as a recognized American Indian tribe in 2000. The Miwok and other California tribes endured years of problems after Europeans became the dominant force in California, including depression, unemployment, and substance abuse. However, in recent years, led by the example of Sarris and others and with improved organizational skills, these tribes have begun to empower themselves. Sarris is apt to point out, both in the classroom and in his books, that it is staggering to contemplate how the California tribes have been decimated. According to many anthropologists and historians, the area that is now the state of California was once the most heavily populated land north of the Rio Grande River. From the southern deserts to the northern forests, tribes such as the Yokuts, Wappo, Yuki, and Konkow thrived. However, after European contact, the Native American population in California plummeted by over ninety-five percent, and in the process, many cultural traits, including language and customs, were almost completely lost as well.
In his first books, Keeping Slug Woman Alive: A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts and Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream, Sarris sheds light on this plight, noting that the struggle has largely remained out of the consciousness of the American public. Sarris has also written fictional works, notably Grand Avenue, a collection of related short stories about reservation life in the northern California city of Santa Rosa. He also adapted the book for a highly rated television miniseries by the same name. The adaptation earned him several awards, including one from the American Indian Film Festival in 1996.
Like most other California Indians, Sarris's blood is an amalgamation of different ethnicities. Today, there are few remaining full-blooded Native Americans left in California. Born in Santa Rosa in 1952, Sarris would never know his real parents. While his mother, the Jewish/Irish Bunny Hartman, died during childbirth, Sarris's biological father, the Miwok/Pomo/Filipino Emilio Hilario, walked away and began a life of heavy drinking that eventually killed him. A white couple, Mary and George Sarris, adopted the boy shortly after his birth. However, as Greg grew older, the situation with his adoptive family became less than ideal. According to Sarris, his new father was also a heavy drinker and was often abusive to him and his mother. As a result, Sarris left the family and began a life of wandering, living wherever he could find shelter.
Sarris lived with several Santa Rosa families, as well as on a horse ranch and a dairy farm. By the time he was in junior high school, he was running with gangs composed of Hispanic and Indian thugs whose main pastime was seeking out white children to fight. "It was a way of saying, ‘I'm here and I'm somebody,’" Sarris recalled to Alison Schneider in an interview for the Chronicles of Higher Education. However, Sarris's life turned around at age twelve when he met the extraordinary Mabel McKay, a Pomo elder, who gave the young man some guidance and a sense of purpose. A basket maker, McKay also taught him the importance of Indian customs and traditions that would instill in Sarris a sense of Indian pride that he had never before felt. Largely instrumental in Sarris's interest in becoming a writer, McKay, who was the last surviving member of her tribe (the Cache Creek Pomo), would be the main focus of his first two books.
Sarris attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where he played football. After a stint working as a model and an actor in Hollywood, he enrolled at Stanford University, earning his M.A., and Ph.D. in modern thought and literature. In 1989 Sarris began teaching, and soon he also began to concentrate on his writing, which for him was a healing process as well. "Many of us have inherited a very dark history. We need to light that darkness. We need to light the room we find ourselves in with stories. The only medicine we have is words," Sarris told Schneider.
In Keeping Slug Woman Alive, Sarris addresses the issue of Indian autobiography, as well as others topics. The book is composed of eight essays, some of which had been previously published. Inspired by the stories of McKay, Sarris mixes storytelling, ethnography, autobiography, and literary criticism in examining his chosen areas of concern. One of his main points is that of the more than 600 Indian "autobiographies" published, over eighty percent have been written by whites who have conducted interviews with the subjects, rather than by the Indians themselves. In Sarris's opinion, when a non-Indian relates these stories, the recital becomes clouded by a non-Indian worldview, and is thus tarnished. In his prologue, which is titled "Peeling Potatoes," Sarris writes of his experience sitting with several Pomo women, including McKay, as they peel potatoes and relate their stories to him. In other essays, Sarris's addresses the term "Indianness" and also his belief that Native American art should not be seen as artifact, but as art.
Critical response to the book was positive. "This text is as close to a hands-on discussion on Native American narratives as can be achieved," wrote Choice reviewer R. Welburn. A contributor for Publishers Weekly called Keeping Slug Woman Alive "interesting," and explained that it could "best be seen as a study in the encounter and clash between cultures." American Quarterly contributor Kenneth M. Roemer made special note of Sarris's narrative powers. "Sarris can construct engaging dialogue and narrative action as he weaves in and out of academic and personal discourses," Roemer wrote.
The Sound of Rattles and Clappers: A Collection of New California Indian Writing contains mostly poetry, but also some fiction and essays. Sarris contributed two short stories, "Slaughterhouse" and "Strawberry Festival," as well as the introduction. "From this place called California, then, you have the voices of many California Indians. They are singing, telling stories, their voices echoing on the pages so you will know. Listen. This place, these rolling, oak-dotted hills, redwood forests, deserts and ocean shores are sounding," Sarris wrote in the introduction. The book also contains Janice Gould's "We Exist" and Wendy Rose's "For the Scholar Who Wrote about the ‘American Indian Literary Renaissance.’" A reviewer for Native California called the book "beautiful, lively, and fresh, rich and generous in literary style and scope."
Grand Avenue contains ten short stories, which all revolve around one clan of Pomo. Most of the stories, including "Slaughterhouse," "Joy Ride" and "How I Got to Be Queen," deal in some way with tribal divisions, often based on ethnic differences. The stories cover three generations of the clan. While the younger individuals get caught up in petty disagreements, the elders try to instill tribal traditions, such as healing songs and basketry, in an attempt to bring everyone together. In the end, each story is about cultural survival. Typically, the stories are told in first-person narrative, each one with a different speaker. Critics welcomed Sarris's first major work of fiction. World Literature Today contributor Greg Sanchez felt Grand Avenue was "well-honed and incisively crafted." A writer in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, called the book a "bleak, moving portrait."
Although it is a novel, Watermelon Nights is similar in some ways to Grand Avenue. Rather than focusing on a whole clan, however, the story concentrates on three generations of one Pomo family. Accordingly, the book is divided into three sections, each with a different narrator. The first section is told by Johnny Severe, a twenty-year-old used-clothing store owner. While Johnny struggles with his own sexuality, his store suffers as he lends his services to the Pomo attempt to get federal recognition. Johnny's grandmother, Elba, narrates the second section, and his mother, Iris (Elba's daughter), is the third speaker. Being the elder, Elba tells of the family's long battle with both poverty and racial prejudice, while also conferring upon everybody the story of Rosa, a family ancestor whose raping and subsequent forced marriage to a Mexican general was the beginning of the family's ethnic breakdown.
Johnny's mother, Iris, is half white and searching for her real identity. All that binds the family together is tribal tradition, and their common familial bond. "The essence of it is that despite all else, love and kindness can get us through," Sarris said, explaining the book's premise to Robert Dahlin in Publishers Weekly. "An ambitious debut novel," wrote Vanessa Bush in Booklist, adding that she felt that Watermelon Nights was "compelling." A contributor for Publishers Weekly com- mented: "This is a rich, satisfying tale of plain folks trying to survive in an unfriendly social milieu," the contributor wrote.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 175: Native American Writers of the United States, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Sarris, Greg, editor, The Sound of Rattles and Clappers: A Collection of New California Indian Writing, University of Arizona Press (Tucson, AZ), 1994.
American Literature, June, 1994, Gail Reitenbach, review of Keeping Slug Woman Alive: A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts, pp. 408-409.
American Quarterly, March, 1994, Kenneth Roemer, review of Keeping Slug Woman Alive, pp. 81-91.
Booklist, September 1, 1998, Vanessa Bush, review of Watermelon Nights, p. 68.
Choice, November, 1993, R. Welburn, review of Keeping Slug Woman Alive, p. 463.
Chronicle of Higher Education, July 19, 1996, interview by Alison Schneider, pp. B4-B5.
Library Journal, August, 1994, Vicki L. Toy Smith, review of Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream, p. 96;
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 4, 1994, review of Grand Avenue, p. 2; January 14, 1996, review of Grand Avenue, p. 11.
Native California, spring-summer, 1994, review of The Sound of Rattles and Clappers: A Collection of New California Writing.
Publishers Weekly, July 19, 1993, review of Keeping Slug Woman Alive, p. 247; February 28, 1994, review of The Sound of Rattles and Clappers, p. 78; August 3, 1998, Robert Dahlin, review of Watermelon Nights, pp. 55, 73.
Western American Literature, May, 1995, review of The Sound of Rattles and Clappers, p. 125.
Whole Earth Review, summer, 1995, Carmen Hermosillo, review of Mabel McKay, pp. 74-75.
World Literature Today, winter, 1996, Greg Sanchez, review of Grand Avenue, pp. 219-220.