Reid Milanovich, son of the late, legendary Agua Caliente Tribal Chairman Richard Milanovich, is in his fifth year as a tribal councilmember.
The young Milanovich, 34, has the same disarming smile and green eyes as his father. He also inherited good looks and a political wit from the man who led the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians for 28 years, up until his death in 2012.
During a recent 90-minute chat, we started off by discussing the construction of the Agua Caliente Cultural Center in downtown Palm Springs; it’s set to open at Tahquitz Canyon Way and Indian Canyon Drive in 2020.
“There’s going to be the museum and the spa, and each building will be about 45,000 square feet,” Milanovich said. “In between the buildings, there will be a pathway, and that walkway will symbolize our Indian Canyons. We want to give the public the feeling that they will be actually walking through our canyons. There will be the native palm trees there, too.”
The 5.8-acre project is being designed by JCJ Architecture.
“It’s all going to be world-class and the best of the best,” Milanovich said with a broad smile—just like the smile his father had when he didn’t want to reveal too much. “Let’s just say you’ll get to bathe in our very own natural mineral spring water that’s north of 12,000 years old.”
There’s a reason the museum is going to be built on that particular site, in what used to be called Section 14: In the 1960s, a shameful decision was made by the city to bulldoze the dwellings there, many occupied by tribal members.
“The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., is going to show an exhibit from the Agua Caliente Museum titled Section 14 in February next year,” Milanovich said. “Millions of people visit D.C. each year, and many of them will be able to see the exhibit and get a pretty good summary of the Section 14 tragedy.”
Coincidentally, it was at an event held at Section 14 many years ago that Reid Milanovich first became aware of his father’s status.
“One of my earliest memories of my father being chairman was (him) unveiling the statue of women holding baskets,” he said. “I was about 6 or 7, and I saw my father talking to a TV reporter, and that blew my mind. I was born in 1983, and my father became the chairman in 1984, so my entire life until his passing, he was our tribal chairman.”
Reid Milanovich was only 30 when he was elected to the five-member tribal council. This leads to an obvious question: Will he one day be chairman?
“My agenda is to serve the tribe as best as I can, in whatever capacity, and … to continue my father’s legacy,” he said.
How does it affect the young Milanovich to walk in the footsteps of his renowned father?
“It inspires me, definitely,” he said. “But I never felt any pressure to be like my dad. The tribal members never expected me to do anything that he did. They all see me as my own person. Everyone’s given me a fair shot in laying my own foundation and being who I am. My dad taught me well. He raised me to do what I think is right.”
After graduating from California Baptist University with a degree in political science, Milanovich served on the tribe’s Scholarship Committee.
“We offer some educational opportunities to our younger tribal members, so that they always have options to go to the school they want to. Hopefully, they’ll take advantage of it,” he said. “Going to college really prepared me for my next chapter—and that was to move out here and get more involved with the tribe.”
As for the under-construction Cultural Center: Many people were surprised that the Agua Caliente tribe did not decide to first build a new hotel. Milanovich said he also felt surprised, but for a different reason—that people thought the tribe would think about business and profit ahead of its heritage.
“To me, personally, this is a project that’s been a long time coming, and it is very important to me and the entire tribal membership to be able to showcase our culture and our history,” he said. “I mean, it’s been decades and decades of waiting to be able to do something like this.”
Milanovich fondly recalls occasions when, during rare moments of leisure, his father would take him to the places where their forebears lived long before there was the city of Palm Springs.
“He would often take us to the Indian Canyons at night,” Milanovich said. “We would stop by KFC and grab some chicken, coleslaw and biscuits, and have a night picnic in the canyons, and he would talk about the history of each canyon. He would discuss different leaders that were before him. He always talked about Lawrence Pierce, (current) Chairman Jeff Grubbe’s grandfather, and, of course, Grandma Laverne. He talked about the people who made a lot of harsh sacrifices to get the tribe where it is now.”
History is important to the Milanovich family, Reid said—but one can’t dwell on it.
“My father often talked about the recent history and some of the tragedies of Section 14,” Milanovich said. “He really did not want to talk bad about what happened, but he wanted us to know that this is history, and this is what happened, and don’t ever forget it. … Remember it, but work together to be able to move forward.”
The Milanovich family, beyond its Native American side, has a lot of international flavor: Richard’s father, Steve, was of Serbian and Yugoslavian origin, while Reid’s mom, Melissa, hails from Sweden.
Milanovich also talked about the female presence in tribal affairs. While there are no women on the current Tribal Council, an all-female council once led the tribe. Milanovich showed me a painting on the wall of his office depicting the five women on that council.
“This is Grandma Laverne,” he said proudly, pointing at his father’s mother.
Richard Milanovich often talked about his daughter, Tristan, and said he thought she would get involved with tribal affairs someday. Her brother says his younger sister does have political ambitions.
“I think, at some point in the future, Tristan wants to get involved with the tribe,” Reid Milanovich said. “I think she is a natural leader, and I think she can do a lot of good for this tribe. Right now, she is in Europe, enjoying being a Renaissance woman as far as traveling the world.”
It was Tristan who introduced her brother to his now-longtime girlfriend, Odessa Nikolic, a renowned fashion stylist.
“Odessa is also Serbian,” he said. “… She has a career out in L.A., and she is doing very well. Hopefully we can both call Palm Springs home one day.”
As we ended the interview, I noticed a folded-up flag resting in a glass box just above Milanovich’s desk.
“That’s the flag that was over my father’s casket,” he said.
Below: A depiction of the new Agua Caliente Cultural Center.