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Sat05252019

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

“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