Greg Sarris wears a lot of hats.
He’s the tribal chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, responsible for leading a community of 1,500 individuals. He serves as the president of the tribe’s billion-dollar business endeavor, the Graton Resort and Casino. He’s also an educator, prolific storyteller and filmmaker.
The UCLA alumnus and former professor in the English department returns to campus today — Indigenous People’s Day — to deliver the Regents Lecture sponsored by UCLA School of Law and the Native Nations Law and Policy Center.
In the lecture, which is titled “Tribal Leadership and the Future of Indian Country,” Sarris will emphasize a desire for greater understanding of the role tribes like his play in the economy and land stewardship.
“I’m going to talk about how we are setting a standard in Indian country in terms of our business model with the casino and with the unprecedented co-management agreements our tribe has with public lands,” Sarris said. “We see our purpose first and foremost to take care of our citizens but as members of a larger world to create business models and advocate for platforms that have an impact on social justice and environmental stewardship.”
The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria are supporters of UCLA who recently donated $4.265 million to create two chairs in Native American law. One was endowed in honor of Sarris, and the other in honor of Carole Goldberg, the Jonathan D. Varat Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA.
That donation follows the tribe’s landmark 2020 gift of $15 million to UCLA Law, which was the largest contribution that a tribe has made to a law school and one of the biggest in history from a tribe to any university. Those funds created scholarships for Native American and other students interested in pursuing careers as tribal legal advocates, and the first cohort of Graton Scholars joined UCLA Law last year.
Sarris said UCLA School of Law, in part because of faculty like Goldberg, has proven to be a premier destination for those seeking degrees in tribal law.
“We saw what a great infrastructure already exists at UCLA and wanted help ensure that infrastructure stays strong, guaranteeing that American Indian law will continue to be taught,” he said. “We are interested in students coming out of the program who can help work with tribes like our own and advocate for our business and our endeavors.”
Sarris said he’s excited to return to deliver the Regents Lecture. He holds fond memories of students and colleagues from his time as an undergraduate and then later as a professor in the English department.
“I just retired from full-time teaching after 35 years but just the other day I was in front of a history class,” Sarris said. “I still just love teaching and working with younger people. If you have the talent to teach you owe it to the next generation, I feel.”
And while his tribal leadership, business acumen and philanthropy often take the spotlight, these days Sarris continues to be a force when it comes to Native voices in media. Long before “Reservation Dogs,” there was “Grand Avenue” a two-part miniseries based on Sarris’ eponymous novel that aired on HBO in 1996 and was produced by Robert Redford. He’s currently working on a biopic about musician Joan Baez.
As an author, Sarris’ body of works includes “How a Mountain Was Made,” a collection of stories inspired by traditional Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo creation tales.
“They’re fun, they’re easy to read, but they contain morals and ethics about or how to live in this world, which is what our stories always did,” Sarris said. “Our stories remind us to live, if I may say so, responsibly on the Earth.”