The ancestors of the Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo lived in this area north of present-day San Franciscofor thousands of years, says tribal chairman Greg Sarris, with a population of around 20,000 before the arrival of the Spanish in the late 1700s.
“These are cultures predicated on a profound respect and a constant reminder that all of life is powerful and sacred,” says Sarris.
While the tribes have a deep cultural history, Sarris, a celebrated essayist and novelist, says the Pomo and Miwok (also spelled “Me-Wuk,” “Miwuk,” and “Mi-Wuk”) designations are a modern creation, not how the region’s Indigenous people actually referred to themselves.
“There was never anything called the Pomo or Coast Miwok,” says Sarris. “In this territory, there were as many as 12 to 15 separate, distinct nations. What the linguists did was classify us by language families. But by the time they came around and began to study us, virtually 95 percent of the population was gone.”
The region’s original inhabitants lived in small nations of between 500 and 2,500 people in what Sarris describes as “one of the lushest and most diverse areas in terms of flora and fauna anywhere in the world. It was a rich environment. There were great herds of elk and pronghorn and deer here, many varieties of oak trees and lots of water, wetlands, and all sorts of waterfowl.
“There were many, many people here. In fact, in this area and much of central California, there were more people than anywhere else in the New World outside of the present site of Mexico City, which was the Aztec capital.”
After nearly a decade of efforts by Sarris and tribal members, in December 2000 President Bill Clinton signed the Graton Rancheria Restoration Act, which granted the Graton Rancheria the status as a sovereign nation that it had been deprived of for 42 years. The Graton Rancheria and 40 others in the state were legally terminated after the passage of the California Rancheria Act of 1958. Speaking of the legislation signed in 2000, Sarris says, “It restored our rights and acknowledged the wrong that the federal government had done in terminating us.”
Since the restoration of federal status, the Graton Rancheria has played an active and growing role both locally and statewide, as well as in the ongoing renaissance of its peoples’ culture.
“I like to say that if we are not the most powerful and influential force in Sonoma County, then we are certainly one of them,” says Sarris. “The poorest people, who suffered the greatest genocide of anybody here per capita, is now taking the high road. As I say, don’t be bitter. Don’t replicate the sins of the colonizer. Amend them. Change them.”
The World of the Graton Rancheria
In 2005, the tribe purchased 254 acres outside Rohnert Park and planned to use a portion of that property for a gaming facility. Today the luxurious Graton Resort & Casino is the best known of the tribe’s destinations and a major source of revenue for the Graton Rancheria.
Opened in 2013, the AAA Four Diamond resort—honored as California’s best casino hotel in the 2022 World Casino Awards—is just an hour from San Francisco. The tribe recently announced plans for an ambitious expansion of the resort property.
Dining options include a branch of Oakland favorite Everett & Jones Barbecue and the contemporary 630 Park Steakhouse. You can enjoy top entertainment and sporting events or bliss out poolside and at The Spa & Salon at Graton, which took the 35th spot in Spas of America’s rankings of the country’s top 100 spas (and fifth in California).
The people of the Graton Rancheria remain connected to their ancestral lands through what Sarris characterizes as “precedent setting” co-management agreements with the National Park Service at Point Reyes National Seashore and Sonoma County Regional Parks at Tolay Lake Regional Park.
Tolay Lake and the lands around it near Petaluma comprise a sacred spiritual and cultural landscape for the tribe, says Sarris. “It’s 50-50,” says Sarris of the agreement. “We help determine the fate of the park and work with the county to determine the protection of sacred sites and other matters.”
According to the Graton Rancheria website, the 2021 co-management agreement with Point Reyes National Seashore is believed to be the only one of its kind in the country. The tribe partners in the preservation of Native American cultural sites and uses its traditional ecological knowledge in collaboration with the park service to protect tule elk herds and ranchlands at the 71,030-acre national seashore. Tribal members also have access to locations at the seashore for traditional cultural and religious practices. As Point Reyes Superintendent Craig Kenkel said of the agreement, “The Tribe and NPS are now solid partners in the management Point Reyes National Seashore…and the overall stewardship of park lands and places.”
A Long History, A Vital Contemporary Role
The arrival of the Spanish set events into motion that devastated the traditional world of the Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok. Enslaved as laborers and vulnerable to diseases brought by the Spanish, then further subjected to forced servitude by laws passed after California gained statehood, the Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok endured terrible suffering. They became landless when the U.S. Congress passed legislation that deprived most California tribes of land. The population plunged precipitously. By the early 1990s when Sarris and others in the tribe began the fight to regain federal status, the Graton Rancheria consisted of just 152 known members.
Sarris says the tribe initially didn’t plan to start a gaming operation and instead focused on acquiring land for a reservation, developing housing, and gaining the health benefits that other federally recognized tribes enjoy. But after struggling to purchase land, the prospect of opening a casino looked like the best way for the tribe to achieve its goals. Sarris says he originally opposed the casino but began to see the benefits that a successful business could create for the tribe.
“I talked to the tribal council and said that I would only take this up if it can be a platform for social justice and environmental stewardship,” he says. “I would only do this if it will benefit Indian and non-Indian alike. And it will be charitable and use the principles of our ancestors. The ethics of taking care of the environment and one another should color everything we do and the decisions we make.”
Sarris says revenues from the resort have allowed the Graton Rancheria to deliver a wide range of benefits, both for tribal members and surrounding communities. He cites $200 million in mitigations paid to the city of Rohnert Park and Sonoma County and $85 million in charitable donations. Tribal efforts include an annual donation in perpetuity of $2.5 million to the University of California so that all California Indians can attend college tuition-free. Another $15 million went to the UCLA School of Law to support students studying American Indian law.
Closer to home, Sarris says the Graton Rancheria provides backpacks for 650 local students and finances after-school tutoring. To help younger people better understand their history and live according to the values of their ancestors, the tribe leads basket weaving and language classes. It also sponsors summer programs that allow youth to go out to Point Reyes and Tomales Bay to learn about native plants and the local environment from tribal elders.
There’s also a big incentive for tribal members to finish high school. In order to receive their per capita payments from resort revenues when they turn 18, students must earn a high school diploma and pass financial and cultural literacy courses.
“We have turned around an 80 percent dropout rate to 100 percent graduation rate,” Sarris says. “Great things have happened here.”