Greg Sarris — professor, novelist and Indian leader — has been the face of the Graton Rancheria since the tribe was restored by an act of Congress a decade ago, and the point man as it seeks to build a casino next to Rohnert Park.
But one of his staunchest casino adversaries, who has spent several years researching U.S. Census records, claims Sarris doesn't have a trace of Indian heritage.
"Mr. Sarris possesses no Native American blood, and specifically, no Coast Miwok and/or Southern Pomo blood, and thus is not qualified to be a member of the (FIGR) Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria," Marilee Montgomery wrote in a Feb. 8 letter to federal and state officials.
She has asked the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees Indian tribes, to review the information she discovered "and if applicable, de-certify" Sarris as tribal chairman.
Sarris said Montgomery's allegations are "horrendously offensive to me and my family."
"I have immediate blood family members, at least 40 in this tribe," he said.
He accused Montgomery and her group, Stop the 101 Casino, of trying to sow divisiveness within the 1202-member tribe by casting doubt on his legitimacy. He called it a "divide and conquer" strategy.
Sarris offered to take a blood test to prove his Indian heritage, but also said Wednesday that the tribe would have to approve such a step.
The controversy is fueled as much by the circumstances of Sarris's birth as it is the question of the reliability of Census records versus tribal oral traditions.
Sarris, 58, who grew up in Santa Rosa's desirable Proctor Terrace neighborhood, was adopted at birth and says he didn't find out he was Indian until he was in his early thirties.
His unwed, 16-year-old Jewish mother died at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, less than two weeks after he was born. Only years later, through his own research, Sarris said, did he discover that his father was part-Filipino, part-Indian descended from Native Americans who inhabited Marin and Sonoma counties.
Montgomery said it is impossible not to sympathize with the circumstances of Sarris' life. But she said her own research of Census, Social Security and other records reveals he is not the great-great grandson of Tom Smith of Coast/Miwok ancestry and Emily Stewart, a part Miwok and resident of Tomales, as a tribe genealogy describes.
Records dating back to 1870 and corroborated in subsequent population surveys show Sarris "is the great-great grandson of Joseph P. Stewart, a barber born in Pennsylvania and Emily B. Stewart, who was born in Maine," she said.
For Sarris and other tribal members who defend him, Montgomery's claims are not only flawed, but infuriating, what Sarris described as "racist and evil."
In a letter sent by the tribe to federal officials, they said that casino opponents attacking their "well respected" chairman and questioning their self-governance and membership is part of a pattern of the dominant society denying American Indian identity, experience and history.
"My Tribe and its members have been able and continue to document and trace our genealogies for establishing who is an Indian and eligible for membership in our Tribe," states a letter signed by Graton Vice-Chairwoman Lorelle Ross. "We certainly do not need Stop the Casino to explain our identities for us, or assume an antiquated paternalistic view of a local Tribe .<th>.<th>."