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Tribe's Plans for a Casino Shake Up Sonoma County

Miwok's flip-flop on gambling stirs a controversy. Indians see it as a way out of poverty.

June 11, 2003|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SONOMA, Calif. -- For nearly a dozen years, leaders of the Northern California Coast Miwok Indian tribe preached a consistent refrain: Other tribes might succumb to the allure of casino wealth, but this landless band would take the high road and avoid gambling.

So folks in Sonoma County, a wine country bastion more comfortable with grapes than gambling, were taken aback when the Coast Miwok announced plans in April for a sprawling casino and resort.

Not only had the tribe moved to purchase a 2,000-acre swath of North Bay ranchland and signed a deal with a Las Vegas gambling company, it also had hired political and financial advisors with close ties to Gov. Gray Davis and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), including the senator's son.

Amid cries of a double-cross, Sonoma County leaders have launched a fierce uphill fight to block the casino, conjuring images of a neon-festooned monstrosity that would create traffic jams, threaten bayside ecological preserves and undercut the wine country's well-cultivated ambience.

They say the Indians pulled a fast one by vowing to stay out of gambling while seeking congressional recognition as a tribe, then reversing course after winning approval. They also question the connection of Doug Boxer to the project, given his mother's part in helping the tribe win federal recognition 2 1/2 years ago.

The tribe "performed this switcheroo," said Paul Kelley, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. "They have gone no-holds-barred into gaming."

Tribal chief Greg Sarris -- a college English professor, author and Hollywood screenwriter -- decries what he considers an overblown hubbub over the Miwok's plans. He insists there is no skulduggery afoot, an argument echoed by other participants in the deal and by Sen. Boxer.

The explanation for the tribe's flip-flop is simple, Sarris said. After they were reconstituted as the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, the tribe (still known by most as the Coast Miwok) considered a variety of ventures. They eyed a vineyard, dabbled with the prospect of organic farming, then sampled the idea of building a cheese factory. Nothing penciled out.

A casino, Sarris said, became the best and last choice to pull many of the tribe's 582 members out of poverty.

"We didn't want to go into gaming," he said. "We looked for other ways to survive. But we were, I think, dreaming."


Sarris and his tribe share a common ancestry, a lost heritage and a rediscovery.

The first historical account of the Coast Miwok dates to Sir Francis Drake's voyage of 1579.

Many in the tribe succumbed to disease introduced by Spanish missionaries, then grappled with the onslaught of Gold Rush settlers. In 1920, the federal government purchased a 14-acre tract near the Sonoma County town of Graton for the remnants of the area's Miwok and Pomo tribes. By 1958, amid a push for Native American assimilation, the Miwok lost their federal recognition.

Sarris, 51, grew up nearby in Santa Rosa, an adopted kid with few prospects and not a clue that he had Native American blood. He finally got on track after high school, attending UCLA as an English literature major. Sarris acted for a time, using his chiseled looks to grab guest spots on such television shows as "CHiPs."

But he returned to college and earned a doctorate at Stanford. He became a professor at UCLA, and now holds a faculty chair at Loyola Marymount University. He lives in a carefully appointed Laurel Canyon home.

Sarris discovered his Miwok roots only in the mid-1980s by tracing birth records to long-lost relatives. He learned that his biological parents were the 16-year-old daughter of an Orange County department store executive and her high school sweetheart, a half-Filipino, half-Indian football star at Laguna Beach High School.

He became tribal chairman in the early 1990s. Sarris rallied the tribe's scattered remnants to fight a series of attempts by other tribes to plant casinos in the heart of Miwok territory, the coveted northern edge of the Bay Area.

The tribe's bid to regain federal recognition, meanwhile, ran into problems at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the late 1990s. Tribal members opted for an end-run in Congress, eventually turning to Boxer for a bill to formally recognize the tribe but prohibit it from developing a casino.

The bill stalled in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee over concerns that a gambling prohibition could whip up sovereignty problems for all tribes. The ban was dropped, and the tribe's recognition won approval in December 2000.


Gambling interests immediately came calling.

"We were restored Dec. 27, 2000. On Dec. 28, I had 11 phone calls from Las Vegas and other places," Sarris recalled. "And it never stopped. We said thank you, but no thank you."

But then a grape glut sank the tribe's winery prospects. Organic farming was likewise overbooked. A joint venture with a cheese manufacturer offered just $200,000 a year.

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