Rebirth of the native

October 25, 1996

American Indian Greg Sarris tells Tim Cornwell how he escaped glue-sniffing gang land to become a professor, novelist and screenwriter.

The literary figure Greg Sarris most admires is William Blake. "I understood Blake because he was all about recreating his world, and about visions," he said. Sarris recreated his own life at the age of 16, with a vision of sorts while waiting tables at a restaurant in Santa Rosa, the northern California city where he grew up.

Watching the father of one of his friends washing dishes, he saw just where his future as a glue-sniffing street gang member was heading, and went back to school.

There were other visions for Sarris, sometime actor and model, now a 44-year-old novelist, screenwriter and an American Indian professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles. There was the moment he saw Mabel McKay, Pomo Indian basket weaver and medicine woman, sing and suck a salmon-like creature out of a sick woman's eye.

"I saw her suck, and then I saw her spit it into a basket. It was something like I have never seen on this earth," he insists. There were other miracles he claims to have witnessed - the elderly Mrs McKay singing the fog away on a road trip back to the reservation, for example.

Some of his students probably think he is crazy, Sarris admits. But he adds: "The gift that I have is to talk both worlds. I can talk just as easily about the structure in Faulkner novels, as I can talk about the structure of Indian beliefs."

Greg Sarris is emerging as a chronicler of the contemporary, urban Indian, about as far removed from the frontier myth of Geronimo or Sitting Bull, or the modern pow-wows served up for Western tourists, as it is possible to be. The conventional celluloid Indian is male and mysterious, mouthing platitudes about the Great Spirit. At the centre of Sarris's stories are women struggling to hold families together.

His own life is a drama almost of Dickensian proportions, David Copperfield, if you will. Though his chosen literary and personal identity is American Indian, he is part Irish, part Filipino, and actually mostly Jewish. His natural father, a professional boxer, died of alcoholism at the age of 52; but then Sarris never met him, for he was adopted at birth, and spent a nomadic childhood in a series of homes.

As a teenager, he was arrested for knifing another youth in a drug deal. He now has two masters degrees and a PhD from Stanford, earned tenure at UCLA in just a year, and immodestly jokes he would be the new Einstein if he had not lost so many brain cells taking drugs. In less than two years he has published four books, and is now working on a new trilogy even as he tries to sell a television series to the networks. Meanwhile he is contemplating a run for a third term as tribal chairman of the Coastal Miwok.

California is thought to have been home to one of the largest Indian populations in North America before its inhabitants were decimated by the arrival of the Spanish and then successive waves of settlers. Estimates for the number surviving today depend on who is counting, and on what criteria.

The United States Government's Bureau of Indian Affairs has traditionally held that you must be a quarter Indian to qualify - "I just make it under the wire", says Sarris. But in some places people as little as one-sixteenth Indian, that is one great-great-grandparent, are enrolled as tribal members, he says.

Contrary to the notion that most Indians live on reservations, it is thought that more than half of California's Indians are urban residents, even if they have lost touch with their tribes. Sarris estimates there are about 100,000 in the San Francisco area, perhaps twice that in Los Angeles. Many men moved to work in the dockyards during the second world war. Others simply left a reservation life that until the arrival of the gambling boom in the 1990s - when tribes took advantage of their sovereign status to open casinos - had almost nothing to offer.

Urban Indians do not live in recognisably Indian neighbourhoods, but are often intermarried with other ethnic groups and frequently mistaken for Hispanic Americans. Typically they are near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Educational achievement, says Sarris, is "dreadfully low". It has been estimated, he says, that fewer than 10 per cent complete school. Among about 400 members of his Coastal Miwok tribe, Sarris has the only PhD.

At his home in the Hollywood Hills, Sarris answers the door in his towel. He is entertaining a group of native Hawaiian film-makers and some Indian relatives from Los Angeles. He is built like a Malibu surfer, with broad shoulders and thick biceps, and close cropped dark hair - he goes to the gym every day. Though his complexion is dark, as a type he looks more Californian than Indian. His own Indian heritage comes through his paternal grandmother, part Miwok, part Kashaya Pomo Indian. He was the illegitimate offspring, he says, of his father's many liaisons in high school; his mother was Jewish, and he was given up for adoption.

Sarris's work as a novelist began to earn critical attention with the publication in 1994 of Grand Avenue, a collection of ten stories of urban Indian life, set in the street in Santa Rosa where he grew up. The same year he published Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream, the story of the woman who became his spiritual guide and surrogate grandmother after he met her as a young boy.

This year Grand Avenue was made into a television mini-series for Home Box Office, the best known cable channel for films in the US. Sarris wrote and co-produced it, and cast many of his 2,000 cousins as extras. It was HBO's highest rated show of the year, the sort of statistic that Hollywood loves.

The televised Grand Avenue opens with Mollie, the mother of three children by different fathers, loading the family's meagre possessions into a clapped out station wagon and heading from the reservation to the city. In the ensuing drama long lost children come home to roost. And a teenage girl undergoing chemotherapy for cancer is more than a tear jerker - it becomes a metaphor for Indian life.

"We're Indians," says one character in Grand Avenue. "So much **** happens to us we forget to feel good." Grand Avenue's characters struggle to reconcile their anger - in particular the alcoholic Mollie's anger, at men who have abandoned her, at racist employers who typecast Indians as lazy and dishonest, at others who assume she is Mexican and address her in Spanish.

"There's a lot of anger in a lot of us, and it's historic," says Sarris. "You see the American Indians, most of us, 98 per cent of the tribes, we never resigned, we are still at war. The anger lives on in various ways, and if you have an angry parent who is angry at something, or about something, that anger gets passed on. It's like a virus that keeps mutating, generation after generation."

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