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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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

In 2000, Pay It Forward, a movie starring Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey and Hayley Joel Osment, made an indelible impression on me.

I believe every occurrence in every moment of our lives is open for us to learn something from it—if we can just figure out what that lesson is, whether we like it or not. We can then pay it forward in how we live our lives.

So it’s the start of the new year, and we’re doing what we do every year—comparing lists of bests and worsts, wins and losses of the previous year. One list I’m always both ready and reluctant to see: celebrity deaths.

The older I get, the more I notice that lots and lots of people I used to “know” are gone: movie stars, local heroes, famous leaders and friends. But instead of lamenting losses, I’ve decided to celebrate lessons learned and pay them forward.

Jonathan Winters died this year at the age of 87. He was the reason my late husband, John Aylesworth, came to Los Angeles from New York, to produce one of Winters’ television series. Although I never met him, “Jonny” had an enormous impact on my life. He was the first comedian I had ever seen who played out his childlike stream of consciousness. We all have it; we just don’t often “see” it, and hardly anyone can express it in real time. (OK, Robin Williams can, but he didn’t die this year.)

Sometimes, when I’m noticing every little thing that distracts me from what I’ve set out to do—those flowers need more water; I should spot-clean that rug; better put those shoes away; have to mail those letters; where are my keys—I think of the way Winters made each of those tiny observations funny: by sharing them, using characters to mock them, taking our obsession with them to its absurdity, and making us laugh at ourselves through him.

I try to catch myself and verbalize—even if I’m alone—the games my mind is playing. I laugh out loud. Thanks for that, Jonny.

Agua Caliente Chairman Richard Milanovich died in 2012, but to me, it feels so recent. He was very smart about how the tribe made local political contributions—generally to support likely winners, so that tribal interests would be heard. Milanovich and I met when we participated in several events on the same stage; we always were glad to see each other. He was a warm and charming man.

When I announced I would run against Sonny Bono in the 1996 election for Congress, everyone assumed it was unlikely that I would even make a decent showing against such a well-funded and high-name-recognition politician/celebrity. The chance that someone like politically sophisticated Milanovich would support me seemed impossible—but he was an early, quiet supporter, without being asked, with great warmth and encouragement. I’ll never forget that. I learned that it’s not enough to hedge your bets; it’s also important to do it with sincerity and class. Richard Milanovich was a class act.

Local philanthropist, socialite and TV-station owner, Jackie Lee Houston, known for her pile of blonde hair and her amazing presence, died in 2011, but that, too, seems like yesterday. I didn’t “know” Jackie Lee, but I did meet or see her a couple of times—and each time was significant for a different reason.

My first meeting with Jackie Lee was at a birthday party for singer Jack Jones. The crowd was glittery; the atmosphere was festive; the private home was lovely. A chair—situated somewhat to the side of the crowd, strategically and beautifully placed near a small table with a slender lamp on it—looked like an ancient throne of some kind, festooned with ribbons. I noticed it when I arrived, and it had remained empty.

Then, all of a sudden, there was a subtle shift in the air, and Jackie Lee was magically seated in “the chair.”

I am nothing if not brash—to the point of occasional not-socially-correct behavior—and I figured since we were at the same party, it would be neighborly to say hello. So I approached “Mrs. Houston,” introduced myself with a couple of lame local references, and commented that I had been wondering for whom the throne had been placed.

She laughed heartily and remarked that she knew she had forgotten something—“my crown.” For the remaining moments of our ensuing conversation, I was completely at ease. Now that’s a skill to pay forward to everyone you encounter!

My other lesson from Jackie Lee Houston was about her husband. I’ve never officially met Jim Houston, but at several events at which I was in their company, I saw the kind, loving, compassionate and totally supportive role he played on her behalf. That is the appropriate way to show true loving concern for someone you care about. I remembered that example when my husband was ill.

Eleanor Parker was an actress when movies like The Man With the Golden Arm were being made. She died in 2013 here in Palm Springs.

The 1955 film was highly controversial at the time, and was denied the Motion Picture Association of America seal because it dealt directly with drug addiction. It also starred Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak. (When I was in my teens, there was nobody I wanted to be more than Kim Novak!)

Parker’s performance in that movie has never left me. Her insecurity and the irrational fear of losing her relationship with her drug-addicted husband led her to a manipulating dependence that was debilitating and totally destructive. I never forgot the lesson Parker’s character taught me: Co-dependence goes in both directions. I’ve remembered that with the alcoholics and druggies and vampires I’ve encountered over the years. Thank you, Eleanor!

Finally, we lost actress Julie Harris in 2013. She was brilliant, and I remember seeing her in The Member of the Wedding back in 1952. I identified with her spirit and her frustration at what it means to have to grow up.

In 1955, Julie Harris again stunned me in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, directed by Elia Kazan, playing opposite James Dean. Any man who has not seen that movie should do so. If ever a script expressed the frustration of brotherly competition, and how one figures out what it means to be a man, this is the one.

I most remember Harris’ plaintive tone of voice, her fragility combined with enormous strength and determination, her yearning to bring healing to a distressed family, and her compassion and love for a man struggling to find himself.

The lesson from Julie Harris in East of Eden? Love is the only thing that matters, and it has to begin with knowing how to love yourself.

Pay it forward. Happy New Year!

Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.

Published in Know Your Neighbors