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Graton Rancheria sponsors community meetings to address casino concerns

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PETALUMA, Calif. - Countering meetings sponsored by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria are taking their casino proposal to the public.

Part of the tribe that originally greeted Sir Francis Drake in 1579 in what is now Marin County, Graton was dissolved in the late 1950s as part of the termination acts and has only recently regained federal recognition. They subsequently saw their land holdings dwindle to a single acre in western Sonoma County.

Now the tribe is proposing to purchase a 2,000-acre site in far southern Sonoma County, along the marshes of San Pablo Bay and abutting against Sears Point raceway, in which they are proposing to build a casino and resort complex in conjunction with Stations Casino of Las Vegas.

The main auditorium at the Petaluma Community Center was filled to standing room only and though a sign listed the capacity as 600, an informal head count showed the audience to be closer to about 200 along with various local media and at least four television cameras.

The mood of the crowd also showed a departure from a meeting held in the nearby town of Sonoma, where the crowd at a meeting sponsored by a Sonoma County Supervisor was largely hostile to the casino proposal.

The audience in Petaluma was much more supportive of the tribe and broke out into spontaneous applause several times after presentation points were made during the two-hour meeting. One possible explanation for this is that Petaluma is a much more liberal town politically than the more conservative town of Sonoma, only 15 miles away.

Another possible factor is that tribal members made up perhaps as much as a quarter of the audience. There was also a healthy showing of several trade union members whose bosses came to praise the tribe, which has made the controversial decision to agree to a partial waiver of sovereign immunity and has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with local labor unions.

In fact, a few members of neighboring tribes in attendance at the meeting grumbled aloud in the hall outside the auditorium about that controversial decision. One member of a neighboring tribe, who asked to not be identified, said that she feared Graton was setting a bad precedent by agreeing to a partial waiver of sovereign immunity.

"The problem with (Graton's) decision is that it can hurt other tribes that try to assert their sovereignty," said the neighboring tribal member.

The meeting itself featured the entire Graton tribal council seated on a stage facing the audience that began with a presentation and later shifted to a question and answer period. Audience members were asked to write their questions on cards, which were gathered in a traditional Miwok basket made by tribal councilwoman Joanne Campbell.

Tribal chairman and noted author Greg Sarris, whose impassioned presentation could be aptly described as a tour de force, largely carried the presentation portion. He began by criticizing the press for bias against the tribe.

"The question that we keep hearing and reading is who are we and where do we come from," Sarris asked rhetorically with his voice taking on an ironic tone.

Sarris explained that the tribe today, which counts some 568 people, are all descendants of 13 members who had survived early European incursions. He claimed that the Miwok tribe, of which Graton is a part tribe originally numbered 20,000 people in pre-European contact times.

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Sarris headed off criticism of the tribe not being legitimate by showing a series of slides that had pictures of 19th century tribal members and pointing out several dozen direct descendants of those members in the audience, and included a photo of his own great grandfather.

Switching gears to economics, Sarris displayed several slides with statistics that showed the tribe was far below the Sonoma County median income and far above the county's unemployment rate. For example, 10 percent of the tribe is currently unemployed compared to an overall rate of 4.9 percent for Sonoma County.

During the presentation, Sarris addressed the question of property use. A satellite photo revealed that the property straddles Highway 37, with the area to the south being largely marsh and reclaimed land, while the area to the north covers the southern slopes of Wildcat Mountain.

The area to the north of Highway 37, on Wildcat Mountain, Sarris said would be completely off limits to development, while the area to the south would become restored wetlands where a traditional Miwok basket making sedge, now nearly extinct, would be replanted. He also pointed to a relatively small area on the map as the area where the resort, casino and tribal housing would go.

After the presentation, the council then read the cards from the audience. Perhaps the most pertinent question was to ask why the tribe had decided to go into gaming after Sarris had promised them that they would not.

Sarris and other tribal council members recounted their various efforts to go into other businesses such as organic farming and grape growing for wine, but claim that they lacked the capital, since the tribe does not have a line item in the federal budget. They also claimed that their total capital assets are only around half a million dollars, the approximate price of a single home in the pricey Sonoma County market.

There were a few brief moments of tension, such as when the council read a question that read, in paraphrase, why the tribal members do not just go out and find jobs.

This question was followed by a series of sharp retorts from each member of the council who each reported that they were all fully employed. For example, Councilman Robert Bagio responded by saying that he had never been on public assistance and was the first minority police officer in Santa Rosa, a city some 20 miles north of Petaluma in Sonoma County.

"We are mothers and fathers, and aunties and we bag your groceries," said tribal vice-chairwoman Lorelle Ross. "Yes, we have a high unemployment rate, but we are members of this community."

Sarris listed his own career credentials as a long-time professor at UCLA and currently at Loyola Marymount University in addition to his several published books, including "Grand Avenue," which was made into an HBO mini-series and filmed on location in Sonoma County.

Though there was no overt hostility during the meeting, a group of about a dozen non-tribal members walked out during the meeting. An unidentified woman briefly engaged a proposal supporter on her way out the door.

"You people are scary," the unidentified woman exclaimed before exiting the building.

Overall, however, the meeting went smoothly. Other highlights include council members telling the audience that they have agreed to a 10-point MOU proposal with Sonoma County that they said would be different from other MOUs in that it would be legally binding by the agreement to a partial waiver of tribal sovereignty. They included a blown up copy of the 10-point MOU proposal that was signed by Sarris.

The tribe is next heading to the town of Sonoma for another of their public meetings.