First Contact

The story of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria begins thousands of years ago, when ancestors of the “Miwok” and “Pomo” peoples lived.  Through oral tradition and stories, authors like current Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris have recreated the culture of those times: as he writes in How A Mountain Was Made: Stories (Berkeley: Heyday Press, 2017), “we don’t really die—not in the stories.  And, as the wise people on this Mountain tell us, the stories are more real than anything else.  And it’s the stories that make life everlasting, eternal. 

Communities of the Coast Miwok, which existed in sustainable harmony with the environment and neighboring communities, were first encountered by the West in 1579, four decades prior to the settlement of Jamestown, according to a diary kept by “Chaplain Fletcher,” who accompanied a British expedition led by Sir Frances Drake.  The Drakes Bay Historic and Archaeological District, designated a National Historic Landmark in 2012 by Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris, is one of the few sites in the United States where historical record exists of first contact between an Indigenous community and the West.

Chairman Sarris states of the Coast Miwok’s experience of first contact, “Our ancestors thought the dead were returning.  Ironically, in time, future contact with Europeans would bring much death to us.”  Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian expeditions would follow, all with stories of contact. During the Mission period, from 1769-1834, Spanish and Mexican occupancy led to the use of Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok peoples as labor for the Mission San Francisco de Asisi [Mission Dolores], Mission San Rafael Archangel, and Mission San Francisco Solano.  After the Mission period ended, Pomo and Miwok people were kept in servitude by Mexican land grant owners.  One Coast Miwok, Camilo Ynitia, obtained a land grant for Olompali, the site of a large Coast ancient Miwok village (and historically significant today).  The San Rafael Christian Indians were granted 80,000 acres of Mission land at Nicasio in 1835, but confiscation by non-Indians quickly reduced this parcel to 4,000 acres.


In 1861 the United States Congress enacted legislation which effectively extinguished Indigenous title to almost all land in California, leaving the Graton Rancheria entirely landless.  By mid 1802, due to violence, loss of homelands, European disease, and enslavement, the Indigenous population of California had declined dramatically.  Some Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo still remained in their ancestral territory, although deprived of a land base, employed as farm workers and in the fishing industry. 

In 1920, the Bureau of Indian Affairs purchased and placed in federal trust a 15.45 acre tract in Graton, California for the “village home” of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo living in Marshall, Bodega, Tomales, and Sebastopol.  Thus, neighboring, traditionally interacting groups were placed into one recognized entity, Graton Rancheria.  In 1958, without tribal consent, Congress reversed this action with the California Rancheria Act, which terminated forty-one Rancherias, including Graton Rancheria.  The territory of Graton Rancheria remaining was distributed to three residents as private property.  See Sarris’ account of this history in one location, Petaluma: https://www.kcet.org/shows/tending-the-wild/the-last-woman-from-petaluma

Despite the federal government’s actions, tribal members of the Graton Rancheria continued to protect their cultural identity by preserving tribally significant sites and practicing their cultures.  As Chairman Sarris recalls in Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), writing about dance and ceremony in the old Roundhouses, “The men who danced wore elaborate and colorful Big-Heads, great feathers on top, and streamers of yellowhammer feathers down their backs.  The women sometimes wore headdresses, but not nearly as large and lively as the men’s. Some wore shell pendants, abalone and clam, over their faces and on their dresses.”

Along with dance, song, ceremony, and other art forms, basket weaving, an ancient art, flourished, and was still practiced by skilled artists and spiritual leaders like Mabel McKay: “Her baskets are beautiful, stunning coiled baskets in different shapes and designs; feather baskets, unlike any seen before, made from the bright yellow feathers of the meadowlark, the metallic green feathers found on a mallard duck’s neck, and the orange breast feathers of the robin.”

Sarris describes the integrated nature of the environment and the people in How A Mountain Was Made: “The Old People of the village, the human descendants of Coyote, they could understand the animals.  They communicated with the animals and plants through songs and dreams—and of course through the stories. You see, in the stories we are always both humans and animals.  That is, we are all People.”

From 1990-1992, tribal members, led by Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris, fought for restoration of federal recognition of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.  On December 27, 2000, President Clinton signed into law legislation restoring federal recognition to the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.  This grant was based upon the continued ownership by one Coast Miwok individual of land from the original Graton Rancheria grant.  In 2002 the tribe’s tribal constitution was ratified.

In 2004, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria formed a Language Group of Tribal Citizens to learn the Coast Miwok language, and received a language grant to publish a Coast Miwok dictionary, based on recordings from Sarah Smith-Ballard, one of the last fluent Coast Miwok speakers.  In 2005, a 254 acre parcel of land was purchased for the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria reservation. Today many Southern Pomo groups still live in Soma County south of the Russian River toward southern Santa Rosa.  Many Miwok people still live in the area of Novato, Marshall, Tomales, San Rafael, Petaluma and Bodega.  Despite the devastation that followed European arrival, contemporary writers and artists of the Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok continue to be inspired, sometimes by stories from the past, often by the environment.  Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris wrote in How a Mountain Was Made how people who forgot the old stories killed all of the bears and the elk and the pronghorns.  They cut down trees. You see, they forgot the stories. They forgot we are all one People, and the animals, indeed the entire Mountain, began to suffer.  Now we must all try to learn to live together. We must all remember stories again.”