We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
It seems strange that California, with the largest Indian population in the United States, should have contributed so few writers to the ongoing Native American literary renaissance, a flowering that has brought a wealth of good new books from writers like Simon Ortiz, Ray Young Bear, Wendy Rose, Sherman Alexie, and Linda Hogan. Their work, inspired by the High Plains and by the mesa country of the Southwest, has added new vigor to American letters—and helped make the mainstream somewhat easier for “minority literature” to enter.
Greg Sarris, a professor of English at UCLA and elected chief of the Coast Miwok nation, puts California on the Native literary map with two books published in the same season, both fine perform ances.
His Grand Avenue, a set of interlocking stories, concerns the Sam Toms family, a constellation of Pomo (“Red Earth People”) Indians revolving around a 100-year-old patriarch. One generation speaks to (and sometimes past) another, recalling the Toms’ literal and figur ative descent from the coastal lake country of northern California to urbanized Santa Rosa. There they lead rough-and-tumble lives on the edge of nothingness, struggling to retain their dignity within an often hostile dominant culture.
Those Red Earth People are the victims of their own worst wishes, too: One narrator, Jasmine (“I’m no sweet-smelling flower,” she growls), dwells under her aunt’s belief that she, as an Indian, shares a special kind of original sin. “Not that we’re bad people,” Jasmine murmurs. “Not like regular thieves and murderers. We inherit it. Something our ancestors did, maybe, or something we did to bring it on ourselves. Something we didn’t realize—like having talked about somebody in a way they didn’t like, so they got mad and poisoned you.”
The poison lingers. Grand Avenue limns an outside world that regards Indians as “all the drunks, all the welfare slobs, all the unwed mothers with their bastard kids.” In the face of that alternating contempt and indifference, the Toms clanspeople forge their lives, marry, produce children, and die. But if Sarris’ mood is often somber (“I seen everything,” one girl sighs), there are also joyous moments of magical realism: “I’m not too old for miracles,” an old curandera proclaims when a young TV-bred Indian girl asks to learn the art of basketry, prompting a minuscule frog to wink knowingly.
Family, as Grand Avenue suggests, is central to Sarris’ work. Anthropologists have long noted the strength of family bonds in Native American communities, as well as the central place family loyalty occupies in traditional ethical and religious systems. Sarris addresses tribal values and his own search for self in a biographical work, Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream.
Mabel McKay—who makes a cameo appearance, barely disguised, in Grand Avenue—was a renowned basket weaver among the Cache Creek Pomo people, who numbered in the hundreds in her girlhood and have now all but disappeared as a distinct culture. Her fame as an artist extended far beyond northern California’s confines; Pope John Paul II and other dignitaries made a point of seeking her out upon visiting the Bay Area. With them came the usual hordes of scholars and journalists, all wanting a piece of McKay’s action. She died on May 31, 1993, as this book was being made, and as Sarris came to appreciate his own heritage as a man part Native American, part Filipino, and part European.
McKay knew Sarris for 30 years, most of his life, and to him alone she entrusted her story. But she did so grudgingly, and he had a hard time getting a handle on how to approach it. Would he use the pure facts, or go beyond them into the ethereal land dangerously bordering Carlos Castaneda’s Ixtlán? McKay urged him along by dryly reciting the data he expected to hear: born Jan. 12, 1907, in Nice, Calif.; married twice; a son and grandchildren; resident in Santa Rosa.
“There, how’s that?” he recalls her asking. “That’s how I can tell my life for the white people’s way. Is that what you want? It’s more, my life….You have to listen.”
Listen he does, doubtless more closely than the graduate student who once asked McKay what she as an Indian medicine woman used to treat poison oak. (“Calamine lotion,” she replied.) Sarris details the “dreaming” that informed and inhabited her work, and asserts, as if to an incredulous audience, that she was guided by spirit rather than craft. Dreams and the spiritual are difficult concepts in the highly evolved system of Native American metaphysics, concepts that neither outsiders nor perhaps some modern Pomos understand. One of Sarris’ many achievements is to describe these things to non-Indian readers in an unpatronizing way, quite unlike the sham “way of knowledge” that made the aforementioned Castaneda rich.
The renaissance is shifting westward into little-explored literary territory, drawing new voices from what the writer Mary Austin called “the [Native] American rhythm” into the mainstream. Greg Sarris’ is one that should resound for years to come.