May 3, 200608:15 AMThe Life
May 3, 2006 - 08:15 AMRichard M. Milanovich [click thumbnail photo to enlarge] has been the Tribal Council Chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians since 1984. I was really looking forward to meeting him, but the experience didn't turn out to be quite what I had expected. He showed me, among other things, how much he loves to bring out the humor in everyday life. Before our conversation began, he closed the office door. Unbeknownst to me, the doorknob was locked. After a few seconds, Nancy Conrad, the tribe's Public Relations Manager, knocked and tried to open the door. [click to hear what happened]
Do you act differently here at the office, or during your official duties, than you do around your family? How do you change when you get home?
[long, pensive silence] What a lovely question! [another long silence] Well... in actuality, I don't really change from my professional to my personal existence. I wouldn't know how to change, because if I did something different, then it wouldn't be me. So I'm just lovable... [Nancy and I join his laughter]
And you like to laugh!
I think it's very important to have the ability to laugh... especially to laugh at oneself.
How do you unwind after a long day? [silence] Or maybe I should ask if you ever get wound up?
I don't think I really do get wound up. I don't get stressed in this job... [grimaces, doesn't like the word "job"] in this chosen field... in this position of helping to guide my people. I don't stress out. I enjoy classical music, as you can hear, but I also like other types of music: jazz, to put me in a different frame of mind, sometimes when I'm driving. Or at home. And I read. I enjoy reading; I can escape. But for actual getting away, I'll go for a walk.
How do you stay connected with your family?
That's the difficult part.
Because... you spend so much time here?
That, and the fact that there's some... is this going to be published? [general laughter]
Nope, it's just between us.
[more laughter] I travel a lot, I'm away a lot, and it's created problems. It's created issues. But I think the wife tries to understand that, and she's had the ability to take care of the family so that they are well adjusted. Most of the kids are now out in the world, but my youngest goes to California Baptist University in Riverside.
That leads to the next question: you received a university degree at a much later age than most students. How did that come about?
When I was in school, I wasn't really paying attention to what I was doing. But I always wanted that formal education, that which you might not learn otherwise. One of our tribal leaders, Dora Prieto, was the first one I'd heard about who went to college, back in the Fifties. It was such a marvelous thing. And I never let it go, that Dora actually went to college. For us here in Palm Springs, getting through high school, getting through grade school, at times was a difficult task, was a chore... for a multitude of reasons: the way that we were treated, the interaction between the Indians and the non-Indian world, and what they saw. So it was a difficult period. But when I found out that Dora was going, I really placed her, and that idea, above everything else: going to college.
Has the treatment of your people changed?
On the surface it has. [long silence] But getting back to why it took me such a long time to get a degree: I went through a multitude of different community colleges, sort of hanging on, working at the same time, because we didn't have the resources that we have today. But I always had that dream of finishing, of getting a BA or a BS. Just because. So then I heard about the University of Redlands, with their offsite degree program for people who are working. I started in October of 1994, and in December of 1994, we made the decision to open the casino.
[laughs] So we opened the casino in April of 1995, and by that time, I was fully involved in the course work. And I said, "I can't stop now. I can't stop now."
So you did this during an incredibly intense period of your life.
Indeed. I mean, I had no time of my own. It was quite a chore. Fortunately, the Council understood that I was in school, and they did give me time when I needed to be at school, even though we all had to do a lot of traveling during that period.
You put in much of the groundwork leading up to the establishment of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, no?
Barbara Lyons was instrumental in getting it done, as well. Barbara did a lot of the mind-bending with people that had to be done. But when Congresswoman Bono found out what we were doing, she was livid.
Really? [silence] Can you tell me more about that?
She said, "Why didn't you ask me to help?" [general laughter]
Darn! I thought you were hiding something juicy.
[more laughter] And she's the reason this Monument was created by legislation, which provides a lot more protection. The Executive Orders used to create some of the other Monuments can be overturned, but getting rid of this Monument would require another Act of Congress.
Several decades ago, your tribe's Big House was intentionally destroyed. What was the impact of that event?
The Big House was where we gathered to perform our ceremonies, to sing the songs, to talk about things. It was like a church, or in certain instances, like a city hall or a capitol building. Or like Stonehenge. It was all those things combined, but it was particularly relevant to the spiritual or cultural identity of who we were. That's where it all took place; that's where it all emanated from. At one point, two of the elders directed that it be burned. It was their determination that our people were not showing the proper respect to their culture, to the old ways, and that they were being too assimilated into this non-Indian society.
Were those elders trying to make a statement to the people as a whole, to return to the old ways?
It wasn't any sort of a warning, it just happened. I think they were saying that we would no longer have this identity, to be who we thought we once were.
This sounds like a very traumatic event. Is it possible to make some sort of recovery?
Believe me, that idea is floating around here quite a bit now. My generation, which suffered the most from this event, was not really able to do anything. My mother's generation, which had this thing done, was fully engrossed in who and what they were; but my generation was sort of left in a void – our parents didn't talk about the Big House, they didn't have any more ceremonies. But we knew something had happened. We didn't know what it was, or why it was. It wasn't until later that we found out what had happened. But even then, our parents, our aunts and uncles, wouldn't talk about it. We knew in our hearts that something was wrong. But my kids, the younger kids, have a greater sense of urgency to reconnect. They have a greater desire, because they know there is more to who they are than what they are right now. And they're coming forward, and trying to... I can't say resurrect it, but trying to identify ways that something can be done about it.
So in the past, there was a focal person or group that had the duty of safeguarding the spiritual and cultural lives of your people. Does such a connecting point exist today?
That very well may be.
But you haven't identified this person yet.
No. I think in many cultures that have this type of a family organization, sometimes the person is picked because of lineage. Other times, they're picked because they have special...
Power. And it's recognized. Just as tradition continually makes change... [pause] it may happen. I don't know.
Do you see signs of that, coming along in the next generation?
I see encouraging signs in many ways, as to what we're doing, how we're going about it, the attempts to reconnect back to the cultural activities we once had. How and where that's going to resurrect itself, I have no way of knowing. I can't be so bold as to say, "Yes, I can see it."
The museum is an attempt to get that back, isn't it?
The plans for that project are moving along pretty well, aren't they?
Yes! And we just held a Cahuilla Day, with games, basket-making, a concerted effort to reconnect. My son, who's the chairman of our Cultural Committee, put it together with some of the other committee members. My son also sings bird songs, and he's teaching the language. I can't even say "hi" in Cahuilla, and he's teaching the language! That's why I think there's an attempt by the younger ones to reach forward and bring back the past. No, reach back...
...to the future?
Tourists are often surprised by the wide expanses of open land between downtown and the airport; sometimes they're right across the street from office buildings. Do you think these parts of the reservation will ever be developed as much as the rest of the town, or will they remain like they are now?
I hope not. But they have to be done with the right type of zoning, the right type of building codes and the right setbacks, so they will be viable and acceptable projects for this lovely valley that we live in. People are so concerned, when we do the hotel, that we're going to make it 20 or 30 stories tall. Why would we want to do that? We live here too.
So you want something that you can be proud of.
One last question: my Hungarian wife says your family name could have originated in her part of the world. Where did it come from?
Yugoslavia. My dad was Serbian - his family came over from Zagreb. He was living in the Chicago area, and met my mother on a trip to the west coast. When he went back home, he told people that he'd met an Indian princess, and was going to marry her.
[File under: Agua Caliente, Cahuilla, Native American, interviews]