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The Invisible People

For Decades the U.S. Said They Didn't Exist. Then the Coast Miwok Indians Called on Greg Sarris to Bring Them Back From Oblivion. In the Process, a Tribe Got its 'Dreamer' and an Outcast Boy a Family.

June 16, 1996|Celeste Fremon | Celeste Fremon's last piece for the magazine was on Sandra Jensen, who fought to receive a heart-lung transplant after being turned down because she has Down syndrome

"Listen: A man with no family has no history and no eyes to see the future. He goes about blind."

--Tom Smith, last known Coast Miwok medicine man and dreamer, 1898


On a coolish morning in the late spring of 1992, Rita Carrillo sat at her kitchen table and stared at the local morning paper. "Hey, Dule!" she called out to her sister Dula. "Come and look at this!"

There in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat was an article about a Pomo Indian named Jeff Wilson who was applying for reservation land at Marconi Cove. Marconi Cove contained not only some of the most stunningly scenic and valuable land on the entire Marin County coastline--maybe in California--but it was also smack in the middle of Coast Miwok Indian territory.

That didn't sit right with Rita. She and Dula and six other brothers and sisters are Coast Miwok, grandchildren of Maria Copa, a Miwok matriarch studied by anthropologists from UC Berkeley in the '30s.

"Hey, Dule!"

Dula wandered into the kitchen in response to her sister's call. Rita pointed to the article.

"He can't just go and do that, can he?" Rita said with a toss of her Rita Hayworth hair. "Are we going to let him do that?"

Dula stared at the paper, then shrugged her shoulders. "What can you do?"

The truth was, whenever Rita or Dula were asked to fill out a questionnaire, under ethnicity they always wrote "Pomo." There was no point in writing "Miwok," especially on a government questionnaire. Although there had been Miwok Indians living for 30 centuries in the territory stretching from Alcatraz Island to the northern edge of Sonoma County, as far as the U.S. government was concerned, the Miwok didn't exist. So to write "Miwok," in the government's eyes, was like saying you were a Martian or something. No. It was worse. It was like saying you were nothing.

Rita gazed once more at the newspaper, then set it down. "Yeah," she said. "What can you do?"

Two days later, Rita received a telephone call from another Miwok, Greg Sarris, who had also read the article. "I think we should get all the Miwok families we know together for a meeting," he said. "If anybody has that land, it should be us."

For years the Miwok had made do with no land and no Bureau of Indian Affairs benefits. Now some upstart tribe said it was going to take what rightfully belonged to the Miwok. "Right is right," Rita said finally. She agreed to do the calling.

On June 13, 1992, the first meeting of the Federated Coast Miwok assembled inside the main room of the Sonoma County American Indian Senior Citizens' Center. Four of the Carrillo sisters filed in together and placed themselves in the middle of the room. Grant Smith, an 80-ish Miwok elder, resplendent in an electric turquoise Windbreaker and abalone shell bolo tie, sat near the front, the better to hear what was about to happen. Violet Chappell, daughter of the renowned Kashaya Pomo medicine woman, Essie Parrish, sat at the back with her cousin Anita Silva, their expressions fierce and watchful as twin hawks'. By the time the front doors were closed and the meeting was called to order, nearly 200 people had filled the center, their mood contentious and anticipatory. Before the meeting could proceed, the Miwok needed a tribal chairman.

Two people were nominated. The first was Young Smith, a 60-ish retired postal worker with a quiet demeanor. The second was Greg Sarris, the 40-year-old Miwok who had earlier called Rita. At first glance, Sarris was a less obvious choice than Smith. With a pumped-up body by Gold's Gym poured into a pair of perfectly distressed Levi 501s and black alligator Tony Lama cowboy boots, he seemed more Hollywood than tribal. His razor-cheekboned face, media-genic blue eyes and thatch of dark hair, drooping Huck Finn-casual over his forehead, gave Sarris the look of a daytime soap star. The impression wasn't far off. An actor/model turned tenured professor of English literature at UCLA, with one book of academic essays under his belt, Sarris was often courted by Hollywood types who hoped he might be writing the next "Dances With Wolves."

In a show of hands, Sarris got all but three votes. Even Young Smith voted for Sarris.

Finally, the new leader got up to speak. He glanced to the back of the room at his "aunties," the hawks. Violet Chappell gave him a nearly imperceptible nod. The soap star persona receded and Sarris morphed into a firebrand war chief.

"What we are doing here is political," said Sarris after a breath. "But its effect will be much, much greater. We have always been Indians. But we have been separated in some ways for a long time. If we join together, we can reclaim histories. We can reclaim our souls."

Then, as if by predetermined signal, the front door of the center opened. Heads swiveled as Jeff Wilson, the executive chief of the Makahmo Pomo of Cloverdale, strode to the front of the room. Wilson is tall, curly haired and charming, with a glittery smile that he uses to punctuate his speech.

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