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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.

Published in Local Issues

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians made it perfectly clear to the city of Palm Springs: The tribe strongly objects to Measure C, the ballot initiative that would effectively ban vacation rentals, which will be decided on by Palm Springs voters on June 5.

“The tribe is concerned that this ban is onerous and unnecessary restriction of the use of allotted trust land,” said the letter from Tom Davis, tribe’s chief planning and development officer, hand-delivered to City Manager David Ready. “The complete prohibition of vacation rentals in R1 zones is an extreme action that will likely only serve to drive this activity ‘underground.’”

According to city records, approximately 770 of the 1,986 permitted short-term vacation rentals are on tribal land. As a sovereign nation, the tribe does not need to implement any of Palm Springs’ ordinances when it comes to properties built on its reservation.

After sharing the letter with me, Davis—who started working for the tribe more than a quarter-century ago, when current Chairman Jeff Grubbe was still in high school—agreed to an email interview.

What is the main concern for the tribe regarding the possible ban on short-term rentals in Palm Springs?

The tribe believes that a total ban on short-term vacation rentals is overly restrictive and, in certain cases, contrary to the principle of highest and best use of allotted trust land.

What are the tribe’s legal options in the case?

Land-use regulation is under the tribe’s sovereign authority. However, allotted trust lands in Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage and parts of the county are subject to our land-use agreements with those jurisdictions. These land-use agreements allow for local jurisdictions to regulate land use, and all decisions are appealable to the Tribal Council for final decision.

You have been with the tribe for decades. Has there ever been a situation like this before?

Nothing specifically like this. However, in 2004, there was a referendum of the city’s rezoning of “Section 14,” a square mile in downtown that is reservation land master-planned by the tribe and rezoned in cooperation (with) the city. The referendum was sponsored by labor unions. A “yes” vote approved the City Council’s decision, and it passed.

On a brighter note, the tribe just announced plans for a new downtown Palm Springs cultural center.

The tribe invites the community to its groundbreaking at 9 a.m., Friday, May 11, of its new 5.8-acre cultural center in the heart of downtown Palm Springs that celebrates the history, culture and traditions of the Agua Caliente people.

What is the timeline for finishing the project?

The groundbreaking will be at the corner of Indian Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Canyon Way, and kicks off a two-year construction cycle to build a new cultural museum; an Agua Caliente Spa and Bathhouse that celebrates the tribe’s ancient Agua Caliente hot mineral spring; a gathering plaza; gardens; and an Oasis Trail. The project is on target to open in 2020.

Simultaneously, the tribe is making plans for an expansion of the Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage. More on that?

The tribal environmental impact report will study the potential environmental impacts of an expansion of the resort that may include expanding the gaming area by up to 58,000 square feet; meeting space by up to 41,000 square feet; the food, beverage and retail space by 25,000 square feet; and the development of up to 310 new hotel rooms in 364,000 square feet of hotel space. About 120,000 square feet of new commercial space is also being considered to the south of the resort. Like any environmental analyses, the tribe’s environmental report will study the maximum development potential and use that information to refine the project.

There are also plans for a new casino in Cathedral City.

The tribe proposes to build a gaming facility and ancillary amenities on land that it owns contiguous to the tribe’s reservation within the city of Cathedral City. As part of the proposed project, an application has been filed with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take approximately 13 acres of land into trust on behalf of the tribe for gaming purposes. The federal actions necessary to implement the proposed project trigger the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. The tribe proposes to develop and operate a gaming facility and ancillary amenities on the project site, which has been previously developed. The proposed project is planned to be designed and constructed in multiple phases and ultimately consists of the development of a casino, parking, bars, restaurants, retail and mixed-use space, and tribal government office space.

Published in Local Issues

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is at a crossroads.

The tribe, which has some 32,000 acres of land across Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage and outlying areas, is making big plans for its prime downtown Palm Springs real estate. Meanwhile, the tribe is involved in a controversial lawsuit against the valley’s two largest water agencies over control of the area’s water rights.

In addition, tribal leadership, with Chairman Jeff Grubbe at the helm, is preparing for an uncertain future that includes online gambling—which may or may not hurt the tribe’s casino revenues.

The late Richard Milanovich (1942-2012) reigned as the tribal chairman for 28 years, during which he placed winning bets on the gambling industry. He led his people from obscurity to become the first Native American tribe in California to own and operate two major casinos—Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs, and Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa in Rancho Mirage.

The Tribe’s 480 members significantly benefit from the casinos. “There’s a direct per-capita payment to all tribal members, both minors and adults,” Milanovich told me in a 2003 interview.

Milanovich was a brilliant speaker and a clever leader who was always open to the media. However, Grubbe is a different kind of leader. He’s not media-savvy like his predecessor was, and prefers to lead from the background.

The current Tribal Council consists of familiar names. Grubbe’s close childhood friend, Vincent Gonzales III (whose aunt Barbara Gonzales was a tribal chairman) is the secretary and treasurer. Tribal councilmember Anthony Andreas III needs no introduction; after all, Andreas Canyon is named after his family. The vice chair, Larry Olinger, 78, is the oldest councilmember; the youngest is Richard’s son, Reid Milanovich, at 32.

Grubbe, who was elected to the council in 2006 and became chairman after Richard Milanovich’s passing in 2012, recently granted the Independent a rare interview. He recalled an occasion at what was then the Wyndham Hotel in Palm Springs when Richard Milanovich “threw him in the fire” to test his mettle.

“It was one of the first times I spoke publicly for the tribe,” Grubbe said. “Richard called me and said he wanted me to speak instead of him, and to welcome everybody to the tribal reservation at this conference. He said it’d be about 20 people.”

When Grubbe got there, he realized there were actually 500 people present.

“I started my opening remarks with how Richard had just pulled an Indian trick on me,” Grubbe said. “Later, Richard told me that I did great, and that at some point, I’d have to talk, anyway.”

During his first stint as governor, Jerry Brown appointed Grubbe’s grandfather, Lawrence Pierce, to the state Water Quality Control Board. Today, Grubbe said, the tribe enjoys a positive and a solid relationship with the governor.

“Gov. Brown has been good to us, and he respected us,” Grubbe said. “I’d been close to the governor. We had dinners a few times, and we talked several times.”

The tribe is presently pursuing two hefty lawsuits, regarding water rights and taxes.

Grubbe said he could not talk about the lawsuits. “But the water issue is that the aquifer is overused, and the quality of the water dumped in is low,” he said. “And for some reason, both the (Coachella Valley) Water District and the (Desert) Water Agency refused to hear our concerns. So we had to address the issue.”

The water litigation is ongoing.

As for the tax lawsuit: Riverside County assesses and collects a possessory interest tax from leaseholders on tribal lands in the valley. In a sense, the tax is a replacement for a property tax. Tribe spokeswoman Kate Anderson claims those taxes are not returned to the valley in the form of services, but are primarily used elsewhere in Riverside County. The tax lawsuit is also ongoing.

From time to time, tribal leadership gets criticized for a lack of transparency.

“I think that is not necessarily true. The tribe has been open, and it continues to be open,” he said. “I just spoke at a Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce meeting before 300 people—local and state officials, business owners and community leaders—and talked about what the is tribe working on. Sometimes, when the tribe does something that certain groups don’t like, they throw in that the tribe is not open enough.”

The tribe has plans for a new Agua Caliente Cultural Museum building on Tahquitz Canyon Way in Palm Springs. However, the tribe wants the community to chip in to help with the $65 million capital campaign.

“It’s a tough job to raise the money for it,” Grubbe said. “My mom’s been on the (Cultural) Museum Board for years. I’ve been talking to the mayor and a couple of City Council members in hopes that the city could possibly get involved, too.”

Grubbe addressed the relationship with the city of Palm Springs, considering the two governments need to exist side by side.

“I try to meet with the mayor nearly every month or so,” Grubbe said. “And there are two new City Council members, Geoff Kors and J.R. Roberts, who seem interested in talking and working with us. But Ginny Foat said some negative comments about us in the newspaper.”

I also asked Foat about her comments, made to The Desert Sun last year, during which she was quoted as saying she “would never do anything on Indian land.”

“I didn’t say what was in the paper,” Foat said. “They took my quote totally out of context. I didn’t say anything negative about the tribe and tribal land.”

Grubbe also talked about former Mayor Steve Pougnet and the current federal investigation of him and the city of Palm Springs.

“We’ve been very careful not to get involved with anything that will put the tribe in danger,” Grubbe said. “I always thought that the mayor (Pougnet) did some good things for the city, and I had no idea about all these other things. I still don’t know what’s going on, and the tribe does not deal with those kinds of things. We’re far removed from it.”

Of course, everyone in the area is curious about the goings-on around the Spa Resort Casino in downtown Palm Springs. Grubbe and the other tribal members have thus far been tight-lipped regarding their plans, although he did offer some hints about what is to come.

“We’re excited about the plans and design for the new downtown hotel, about the style of the rooms, etc.,” Grubbe said.

According to Grubbe, the old Spa Resort hotel had to be torn down because of errors made when the building was constructed in the 1960s. He cited a poorly designed and located entrance as an example.

“We’re looking for possibilities to have a new hotel with an entrance from Indian Canyon (Drive),” Grubbe said. “We’re talking to our membership about all these ideas. We want to build something special to redefine the downtown.”

Tom Davis, the chief planning and development officer who’s been with the tribe since 1992, offered yet more hints. He said it was possible the tribe could construct two hotels downtown.

“I expect that sometime this year, the tribe will come up with a certain architectural plan for a spa development, and perhaps some type of a boutique hotel,” Davis said.

Davis also said the tribe expects the city to return the street portions of Calle Encilia and Andreas Road to the tribe.

“This is consistent with the Section 14 master plan and the existing agreements with the city,” Davis said.

Grubbe—a former football jock who stands tall at 6 foot 2 inches—also addressed the current lack of women on the tribal council.

“We’re a very democratic tribe,” he said. “We have a strong presence of women at our tribal meetings, and they tell us exactly how they feel. In the past, we had an all-female tribal council. We don’t have any women running now for the council, but I’m sure it’ll change.”

Published in Local Issues

“The minority residents of Section 14 … homes were destroyed by a city-engineered holocaust,” wrote Loren Miller Jr. in a 1968 report to the state attorney general.

Bordered by Alejo and Ramon roads, Indian Canyon Drive and Sunrise Way, Section 14 is one square mile. Today, it’s one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in all of the Coachella Valley.

The current exhibit at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, Section 14: The Other Palm Springs, offers a compelling account of how one Native American tribe produced its future despite its past. The sequencing of blown-up maps and newspaper clippings (most with embedded pictures) creates a narrative. Quotes from government officials provide greater context. However, the depth and raw accounting of the Agua Caliente’s existence comes from period pictures, quotes from tribal members and council leaders’ oral histories.

Featuring a series of oversized maps, the front room chronicles the origins of Section 14. The U.S. government created a grid consisting of townships that were further reduced to square-mile pieces of land. After the railroad purchased what it wanted and/or needed, the remaining sections were numbered. The government retained all of the odd-numbered plots, and leased most of the even-numbered parcels in the Palm Springs area, including Section 14, to the tribe.

There is a clear change in temperament between the two spaces that make up the exhibit. The opening room provides the needed fact-based overview of how Section 14 came to be; the maps and charts inform without being overly academic. However, it is the second room that offers insights into the human experience of the Agua Caliente who lived in Section 14.

This part of the exhibit focuses upon the journey of these Native Americans during a period roughly beginning in the 1930s. Some images, likely taken before 1930, show the Agua Caliente working to create the railroad. However, the real narrative is about the Agua Caliente’s self-determination and a focus upon their future. Their efforts produced a radical evolution from subsistence living to becoming an economic and social force within the Coachella Valley—particularly in Palm Springs.

Palm Springs once offered, as Dickens might say, “A Tale of Two Cities,” Celebrities and the wealthy, frequent visitors to the desert, employed the Native Americans to take care of their estates. In sharp contrast, Section 14 could best be described as a dilapidated shantytown.

The east side of Section 14 was pretty much desolate, save a stable and a couple of other structures. While there were some shops along Indian Canyon, the balance of the west side was taken up by housing—mainly shacks constructed from wood, tar paper and other materials, as well as trailer parks. Indoor plumbing, garbage pickup and running water were essentially nonexistent.

The adults, who understood the inadequacies of their living conditions, hid the reality from their children. One oral historian, Renona Peddington, recalls her childhood in Section 14 as “safe” and “free.” Additionally, she recalls that “no doors were locked,” and that during the summer, we “could sleep outside and look at the stars.”

A series of newspaper articles and government reports documents actions and events that redefined Section 14. First, in about 1956, the Agua Caliente elected five women who lived in Section 14 to be their tribal leaders. Vyola Ollinger, Eileen Miguel, Gloria Gillette, LaVerne Saubel and Elizabeth Monk today would be called activists. These women also pushed for innovation. For example, they commissioned a master plan for the section and presented it to the Palm Springs government; however, the local government never signed off.

A second force that led to the rethinking of Section 14 was a growing number of dissatisfied residents and visitors. The group, appalled by the “blighted” area in the center of the city, pushed for radical change. Especially loud were people who did business in the rapidly growing tourism industry.

Most likely responding more to the tourism-industry protests than the activist tribal council, the Palm Springs city government began to push for the demolition of Section 14. Through a series of dubious maneuvers, the city tried to take possession of the property by having the lease revoked. When those efforts failed, the city refused to provide utilities, like power and water. Concurrently, city officials required Section 14 residents to bring their homes up to code. Finally, the city moved to raze the entire square mile. A law requiring residents to receive at least a 30-day warning was frequently ignored: Residents would leave their homes to go to work and return to find rubble.

One realization and legal change—perhaps a bit understated in the exhibit—all but guaranteed a better future for the Agua Caliente. As Ray Patencino, an Agua Caliente oral historian, stated: “We had something that everybody else wanted. It’s called real estate.”

Another big change occurred when the Agua Caliente lobbied for and received rights to establish gambling facilities on Indian property. These rights later extended beyond the Agua Caliente to include all Native American tribes.

The exhibit shows the evolving relationship between Palm Springs and the Agua Caliente. During my first visit, it seemed that a few more images of what Section 14 looked like would have strengthened the exhibit. However, during a second visit, it became clear to me that the images were there, but integrated as collages on the exhibit’s walls.

Something easily overlooked is a group of pieces of distressed wood. They hang, almost like a wind chime or mobile, in the middle of the second room. These pieces survived the razing of the Section 14.

This is a powerful exhibit that tells the tale of a largely unknown chapter of our valley’s history.

Section 14: The Other Palm Springs is on display through Nov. 8 at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, located at 219 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. The museum’s summer hours (June through August) are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and noon to 5 p.m., Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, call 760-778-1079, or visit www.accmuseum.org.

Below: Pieces of wood from the razed homes in Section 14 hang in the exhibit.

Published in Visual Arts

The Coachella Valley has a rich artistic culture spanning thousands of years—long before Palm Springs became known for golf courses, swanky shopping and mid-century architecture.

The Agua Caliente Tribe of Cahuilla Indians hailed nature as a source of a spiritual presence. The earth was a most important aspect in their lives, as were the waters and the majestic mountains and skies. Much of the Agua Caliente culture originates from nature, such as the story of the Blue Frog and the traditional “bird songs” that have been passed down though the generations. Intricate basket-weaving is celebrated today in exhibitions throughout the valley—part of a treasure trove secured by the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.

To learn about and be enriched by Agua Caliente culture, there is no place better than this museum, currently situated at 219 S. Palm Canyon Drive.

I recently met with Michael Hammond, the executive director of the museum since 1999, and Steve Sharp, the director of development. Under their leadership, the museum has preserved and documented thousands of cultural treasures for the tribe.

About a decade ago, the ACCM became a part of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution Affiliations Program; it is the first Native American museum to be part of this group. The designation allows the museum to draw from the many programs and resources offered by the Smithsonian in technology, programming and exhibitions.

The ACCM has been occupying its modest downtown Palm Springs structure for decades—and recently, Hammond and Sharp filled me in on a plan for a new museum that will exhibit the tribe’s heritage in a state-of-the-art facility with high-tech surveillance and the latest in temperature-control technology.

The plan has been in the works since 2008 for a new 110,000-square-foot facility in Palm Springs along East Tahquitz Canyon Way. The architect for this magnificent structure is JohnPaul Jones, of Jones and Jones in Seattle. The new museum will be an energy-efficient building with LEED silver certification—the way of the future.

Plans were put on ice during the economic downturn. However, now that the economy is improving, there is interest in continuing the plans—although groundbreaking dates have been announced as of yet.

This is a very important project for the entire Coachella Valley—not just for Palm Springs and the Agua Caliente Tribe of Cahuilla Indians. The new structure would allow us to celebrate our valley’s original heritage and cultural traditions, and would be a source of community pride for all the world to see.

The museum's current exhibition, Where Are the Tipis?, tackles common misconceptions about Native Americans; it is on display through Sunday, Oct. 20. Hammond offers a narrative lecture with the exhibit, which is educational and enjoyable.

The museum also has an important event coming up: On Saturday, Oct. 12, is the Dinner in the Canyons. This fundraiser takes place al fresco in Andreas Canyon. Dining and entertainment will take place among the splendor of the natural preserve that is the stage for this magical night. Reservations are a must, since the 350-person event usually sells out. Tickets are $300, $235 of which is tax-deductible; get more information at www.accmuseum.org/Dinner-in-the-Canyons.

Make it a point to visit the museum in person; it’s a vital, important part of the fabric of the Coachella Valley. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. For more information, call 760-778-1079, or visit www.accmuseum.org.

Richard Almada is the CEO and president of Artistic Relations and heads up Desert Art Tours. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Visual Arts