Greg Sarris read, flawlessly and in a voice that carried to the corners of the high-ceilinged gallery, the new children's story he's written about characters from Indian lore named Fox, Rattlesnake and Raccoon competing for Hummingbird's heart.
It is a parable about priorities and caring for the less advantaged, and the audience of about 50 applauded warmly in a studio in Santa Rosa's A Street arts district.
Sarris, a Santa Rosa native and chairman for 20 years of a tribe planning to build a casino and resort next to Rohnert Park, has his own story. Woven with a past hard to unravel, his story also is about the perseverance that has his tribe poised to become a North Bay economic and political power.
The casino proposed by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria would be one of the largest in California, with 2,250 employees, yearly revenues of more than $300 million and almost 15,000 cars a day coming in and out of its parking lots.
At the reading earlier this month, Sarris, 60, was a guest author of the Imaginists Theatre Collective. But as he introduced the story and spoke about American Indians, he interrupted himself to raise the subject of the casino.
"I don't want to get on my pulpit," he said, "but people always come up to me and say, &‘Casinos aren't Indian.' And I always say, &‘What about Wal-Mart is Irish?'"
It was an unprompted comment about the casino plan that gets a first hearing in the state Senate on Tuesday — a subject that Sarris, wounded by what he considers unfair attacks on him and the tribe, has refused to discuss publicly for years.
And it was a sign of how closely gambling, race and controversy now shadow Sonoma State University's highest-paid professor, who has six books to his name, one that was turned into an HBO movie produced by Robert Redford.
The casino has been a source of furious debate, lawsuits and public hearings for nearly a decade. And Sarris has been a public figure in Sonoma County since his writing career took off in the 1990s. Yet, he remains a public enigma.
As scrutiny of the casino proposal intensified, Sarris became less willing to discuss the tribe's plans and to respond to withering community criticism. With construction coming as early as June, he refuses to be interviewed.
"He is a very complex person," said retired Sonoma State University communications professor Jonah Raskin, a friend and writer with whom Sarris shares manuscripts he is working on. "Greg has more sides to him than just about anybody I know."
The tall, charismatic Sarris has his roots in small-town, 1950s Santa Rosa. He rose to academic success — earning a doctorate from Stanford University — and national prominence as an author and lecturer living in Southern California.
Since the early 1990s, he has parlayed the force of will and powerful political ties into a successful bid for tribal recognition, winning the backing of a multibillion-dollar Las Vegas gambling company for the $433million casino and resort.
For the past six years, he has lived in Sonoma County and continued to push the project closer to reality.
Throughout, friends say, Sarris has followed the threads of a difficult personal quest.