In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Watermelon Nights by Greg Sarris
  • Lydia M. Heberling
Greg Sarris. Watermelon Nights. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2021. 456 pp. Paperback, $26.95.

Greg Sarris's novel Watermelon Nights, originally published in 1998, maps the fictional Waterplace Pomo tribe's struggle for survival across three generations in twentieth-century California. The novel opens on twenty-year-old Johnny Severe as he petitions his community to fill out their genealogy charts for federal recognition, decades after they were terminated in the 1950s. The novel then traces the stories of Johnny, his grandmother, Elba, and his mother, Iris, as they navigate what it means to survive as California Indian peoples through the twentieth century. Using the US federal policies of termination and recognition as narrative frames, the novel plots the effects of these policies within the context of California settler colonialism in the aftermath of a state-sanctioned genocide. The world Sarris illustrates is a rare representation of the effects of these government policies on one California tribe, offering an illustration of the challenging process of organizing for federal recognition in the aftermath of these policies.

In part, this novel itself is a petition for federal recognition, a genealogy chart that weaves together vast and complex relational webs that testify to an abundant, if scattered, Waterplace Pomo community. There are several instances where the tribal community hangs together precariously; violence, poverty, migration, and trauma remain imminent threats to the tribe's survival. But these stories, a kind of "medicine" as Sarris calls them in his new preface, testify to the ongoing survivance of the tribe and are offered here as proof of existence. Formally, Sarris structures this genealogy through the aesthetic of basket weaving. Johnny, Elba, and Iris's stories are temporally woven together and mutually reinforce each other, starting in the present, skipping two generations back to Elba, and finally looping back to Iris. This formal employment of weaving as narrative practice is amplified by the image of a Pomo basket on the cover of the new edition.

The 2021 reprint of Watermelon Nights is framed with a new preface and afterword. In the preface Sarris explains that the premise for the novel arose from his own efforts to seek federal recognition for Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo tribes, whose status had been terminated [End Page 294] under the California Rancheria Act in 1958. He contextualizes the precarity of recognition for his—and that of many California tribes—status in California's long twentieth-century colonial legacy of "poverty and oppression" and "shared trauma," and boasts that now that the tribe is federally recognized, it offers its members "a host of support services" and operates "one of the largest and most successful Indian casinos in the country" (viii). A new afterword by literary scholar Reginald Dyck offers a critical analysis of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination within a California context and situates Watermelon Nights in an arc of California urban Indian novels that include Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn (1968) to Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange's There There (2018). Dyck suggests that the characters in Watermelon Nights navigate urban spaces and forge meaningful relationships that articulate a dynamic, contemporary Indigenous web of kinship networks.

Watermelon Nights participates in an energetic growth of California Indian literatures at the turn of the twenty-first century. In addition to Watermelon Nights, Sarris published Grand Avenue (1995) and the first of three edited collections of California Indian writing, The Sound of Rattles and Clappers. Chumash and Esselen writer Deborah Miranda published her debut poetry collection, Indian Cartography, in 1999. Tongva and Ajachamen writer, artist, and activist L. Frank also published her provocative cartoon book, Acorn Soup, in 1999. Koncow poet Janice Gould had been publishing poetry since the 1980s, and Hopi and Miwok poet Wendy Rose published poetry prolifically beginning in the 1970s. This partial description of a diverse archive of California Indian creative works testifies to an expansive creative geography within which Watermelon Nights must always be contextualized.

More than twenty years after its publication, Watermelon Nights by Greg Sarris continues to raise provocative questions about California Indian sovereignty and representation. A 1999 review of...