Books

New books honor California’s American Indians more than ceremonial recognition

“Becoming Story: A Journey Among Seasons, Places, Trees, and Ancestors” by Greg Sarris. Photo: Heyday

Many of us have been at events in recent days where the person at the podium thanks the Native Americans on whose land the site of the event now stands. It’s clear this is done with good intentions – as a sign of recognition and respect – but the practice often rings a bit hollow to me.

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Graeme Wood, writing in the Atlantic, puts the issue more bluntly: “A land acknowledgment is what you give when you have no intention of giving land. It is like a receipt provided by a highway robber, noting all the jewels and gold coins he has stolen.”

He goes on: “It is difficult to exaggerate the superficiality of these statements. … The speaker demonstrates no knowledge of the people whose names he reads carefully off the sheet of paper.”

And his most damning statement: “If you enjoy moral exhibitionism, to say nothing of moral onanism, land acknowledgments in their current form will leave you pleasured for years to come.”

By contrast, two new books that sincerely acknowledge the original inhabitants of our country are a refreshing and welcome addition to our understanding and appreciation of Native American culture.

Greg Sarris is serving his 14th term as chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, a tribe formerly known as the Federated Coast Miwok, descendants of a handful of survivors from Marin and Sonoma counties. He co-wrote HR5528, a bill that became law on Dec. 27, 2000, and restored the Federated Coast Miwok as a recognized American Indian tribe, making the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria the last tribe in the United States to be restored by an act of Congress.

An accomplished novelist (“Watermelon Nights,” “Grand Avenue”), short story writer and poet, Sarris has a new work, “Becoming Story,” a memoir about his connection to his homeland.

Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, waves to the crowd before the opening of the Graton Casino & Resort on Nov. 5, 2013, in Rohnert Park. Photo: George Rose / Getty Images

Locals will appreciate his memories of Santa Rosa’s Fourth Street and landmarks like the still-operating Flamingo Hotel. His great-great-grandmother was the last native of Petaluma, not the city we know today, but the ancient Coast Miwok village, a thriving community of at least 500 people.

The story he tells goes from his childhood up to his current life, living on Sonoma Mountain and teaching at Sonoma State. He writes, he says, for the new generation of Native Americans, to leave “a set of tracks, however faint, down the mountain into the plain and back, connecting to those infinite other pathways that take us and keep us in the land and its life here.”

Susan Straight’s “Mecca.” Photo: Courtesy MacMillan

I have long been a Susan Straight fan. A native and resident of Riverside, Straight’s books deal with the Inland Empire and high desert of Southern California. Our relationship to place, Straight has said, plays a pivotal role in shaping our perspective.

The characters in her new novel, “Mecca,” are men and women whose families have lived in the inland region for centuries, descended from Native Americans, Mexicans and enslaved Africans. Despite the essential nature of their work – as cops and agricultural and health care workers – they’re subjected to racism and violence on the part of relative newcomers to their land. And they’re complex, each carrying the burden of their distinct histories.

One of her protagonists, Johnny Frias, whose family has lived in California since before it was part of the US, is a highway cop. The racism and abuse he encounters both at work and on the road is stunning and painful.

Author Susan Straight’s new novel is “Mecca,” her latest about the people of the Inland Empire and the high desert of California. Photo: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Another, Ximena, is a young undocumented immigrant working at Seven Palms, a medical spa where rich white women go for plastic surgery. The massive air-continued rooms where every need is met are in stark contrast to Ximena’s own substandard house. She and her Latino co-workers are invisible to the patients at Seven Palms, and they are terrorized by a Latina boss who underpays them and threatens to call ICE for even minor transgressions.

And finally, there’s the heartbreaking story of a young Black man, a rising basketball star who makes the mistake of dropping his cell phone at a fast-food joint. The ensuing tragedytizes his close community.

Straight connects us with her characters through her masterful, non-sentimental telling of their stories.

These books help tell the authentic story of Native people in California. There’s nothing hollow about it.



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