The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, a landless tribe eight years ago, now stands on the verge of great wealth as it readies to open the Bay Area's largest casino on the outskirts of Rohnert Park.
Through revenue-sharing deals with Rohnert Park and Sonoma County that could steer half a billion dollars to those jurisdictions over 20 years, the tribe already is a major actor in the North Bay.
And its leaders are clear about the tribe's desire to be an increasingly influential force in the region once its $800 million casino opens later this year.
"This opportunity will empower us to be important and engaged in this community on all sorts of issues and questions, particularly on questions of the land," Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris said, referring to casino income and to the tribe's oft-stated goals of preserving and restoring natural habitats.
"We'll have the financial resources to own the natural resources," he said.
But after nearly 13 years on the public stage — often in a withering spotlight of critical scrutiny — the sovereign nation of 1,300 people remains relatively unknown for a social and governmental entity of its size and potential sway.
However, public documents that include financial reports and audits obtained from the federal and state governments, as well as interviews with Sarris and others, add to the portrait of the Graton Rancheria.
Sarris, the tribe's chairman for 21 years, agreed to speak about certain subjects raised in the documents. About others, he declined, saying they are "in-house business and do little that profiles us as a people." He would not confirm or disclose any of the tribe's financial details.
The documents show how rapidly the tribe grew after its plans for a casino were announced in 2003; that it has received tens of millions of dollars in federal and state aid; and that this year it asserted considerably greater control over its Wilfred Avenue reservation property.
They flesh out the tribe's demographic makeup, and also show that it has divided among its members more than $12 million in funds that tribes with casinos pay to the state, which redistributes them to tribes without gambling operations.
Taken together, the documents show how the Graton Rancheria has worked to provide for its citizenry and other area Indians. They sketch out how the tribe developed and grew as an organization. They highlight its aspirations for influence and depict an entity that has, often adroitly, laid the groundwork to achieve that goal.
The Graton Rancheria's status as an Indian nation was restored by an act of Congress in December 2000, and in its early years, the tribe urgently sought funds to sustain itself.
On March 7, 2002, in Washington, speaking to the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Sarris appealed for money for his tribe. Until then, it had received $95,800 from the government, records show.
"We have no ability to hire an administrator and only limited ability to respond to the needs of tribal members," Sarris told the committee, describing how the tribe was using donated furniture and financial contributions from other tribes.
"We cannot even plan basic next steps because of the uncertainty about future funding," Sarris said, according to a transcript of the hearing.
That October, the tribe received $467,761 for housing programs from the federal government.