The 1960s introduced a wave of change in U.S. culture, politics, and history, from the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement to the advent of color television and man’s first steps on the moon. In Palm Springs, architects were designing one-of-a-kind modern homes, such as the Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway, and Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack were filling The Purple Room and other venues with their flawless legato vocals, almost in defiance of the turbulence that swept across the rest of the country. However, in the midst of Palm Springs’ heyday as a dreamy retreat for Hollywood and business elite, profound social and political changes were underway, most visibly on the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation, where, like many ethnic minorities across the country, members of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians struggled against the racism of non-Native Americans.
Yet that never stopped Tribal members from believing in a brighter future for the Tribe — or making history themselves. In 1955, five Agua Caliente women joined forces to form the nation’s first all-women Tribal Council.
Initially comprising Vyola J. Olinger (later known as Vyola Ortner) as Chairman, LaVerne Saubel as Vice Chairman, and Council Members Elizabeth Pete Monk, Flora Patencio, and Eileen Miguel, the groundbreaking Tribal Council would continue to govern the Agua Caliente well through the first half of the 1960s, except for a brief period from 1962 to ’63, when Lawrence Olinger was elected to the Tribal Council. (In 1965, four new members, all men, were elected to join Dora Joyce Prieto in overseeing Tribal affairs.)
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Their role is historically noteworthy not only for their gender but because of the economic and political initiatives they launched that cleared the way for development of tribal lands and the dramatic growth of Palm Springs.
In addition to negotiating several local breakthroughs in Tribal sovereignty, including the writing of a new Tribal constitution and bylaws, the women on the Tribal Council shared their ideas with other Native American tribes across California and the nation.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES
Seated, from left, are Tribal members Elizabeth Pete Monk, Priscilla Gonzales, Eileen Miguel, Dora Joyce Prieto, and Larry N. Olinger. Ray Simpson, legal counsel for the Tribe, stands at the far right.
In the late 1950s, for example, Olinger was not only chairman of the Agua Caliente Tribal Council but also chairman of the California Indian Congress and a regional representative in a meeting of the National Congress of American Indians, where she led a discussion on “The Future for California Indians,” according to an Oct. 25, 1956, report in The Desert Sun.
The federal government’s imposition of five-year lease restrictions on Indian land had kept the Agua Caliente Reservation in a perpetual state of blight, which became more noticeable as Palm Springs developed into a major tourist destination in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. With such constraints, economic development gravitated toward non-Indian land, while Tribal land languished.
Tribal Council members were assertive and demonstrated great perseverance and resolve. They made numerous trips to Washington, D.C. to support the eventual passage of the 99-year lease, which President Eisenhower signed into law. Once that happened, growth and development of Palm Springs could enter a new phase, starting with the grandest development of them all: the 131-room Spa Hotel, which opened in 1963. The hotel and its 30,000-square-foot health center were built on the site of the ancient Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring from which the hotel and the Tribe derive their names.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Construction of the Spa Hotel, looking out across Calle El Segundo toward Tahquitz Canyon Way.
The Spa Hotel marked a symbolic turning point for the development of Agua Caliente land, which comprises roughly half of the city of Palm Springs. Other Agua Caliente properties would eventually be developed with hotels, restaurants, stores, and condominiums.
The women on the Tribal Council were business people themselves or were married to businessmen. They were keenly aware of the difficulties of collecting rents, managing property, and promoting economic development.
As Tribal members absorbed mainstream American culture, they also developed a shared interest in supporting the desert’s tourism-based economy because visitation supported everyone who lived here (though the Tribe itself had been in the tourism business for decades by providing visitors access to the Indian Canyons).
It was the Tribe’s interest in supporting Palm Springs’ growth as a tourism destination that prompted the Agua Caliente Tribe to sell 600 acres of its Reservation land to the City of Palm Springs for the Palm Springs International Airport in 1961. The Tribe had previously leased the land to the city.
Though the all-women Tribal Council made significant gains at the federal level, relations with the city of Palm Springs government remained dicey at times.
From left to right, Eileen Miguel, Elizabeth Pete Monk, LaVerne Saubel, Palm Springs Mayor Frank Bogert, Dora Joyce Prieto, and Priscilla Gonzales.
In 1965, for example, Tribal Chairman Eileen Miguel personally joined her attorneys in filing a lawsuit against the city in an effort to prevent Palm Springs from enforcing city zoning ordinances on Tribal lands, according to an April 10, 1965, report in The Desert Sun.
The case eventually prompted the U.S. Department of Interior to tell the city in 1977 to concede final authority to the Tribe pursuant to federal law.
By the end of the decade, the Tribal Council was again dominated by men, but it was the women who garnered the most national attention at that time, and rightly so, for their actions during the height of the Civil Rights Movement laid the economic foundation for the Palm Springs tourism economy we know today.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Aerial view of the Spa Hotel in downtown Palm Springs.
the who’s who of the 1960s
Miguel, born a year before the start of the Great Depression, was the daughter of Miguel Welmas and Matilda Patencio. She assumed leadership roles on the Agua Caliente Tribal Council in her 20s and was a pivotal figure in the 1950s and ’60s in guiding the Tribe into its modern period and, in the process, transforming Palm Springs into the city it is today.
Miguel served alongside Elizabeth Pete Monk, Vyola Olinger, Flora Patencio, and LaVerne Saubel on the all-women Tribal Council in 1954. She became Tribal Chairman in 1959 and continued in that role until the middle of the decade.
At the time, the Tribal Council recognized that the Tribe possessed valuable real estate, but federal rules constrained them from using the property to the benefit of Tribal members and the larger Palm Springs community. Miguel and the other members of the all-women council persuaded Congress to allow 99-year leases on Agua Caliente land. One of the first successes was the opening of the Palm Springs Spa Hotel at the site of the Hot Mineral Spring, which ushered in a new era of tourism and development in Palm Springs.
Along with her sisters, Dora Prieto and
Corrine Siva, she became known within the Tribe as one of “the generals” because of her reputation for tackling projects and seeing them through to completion. In a 1996 interview, then-Tribal Chairman Richard M. Milanovich framed their importance this way: “She and her sisters, the other generals, Dora and Corrine, completely changed the ability of tribes throughout the country to develop their land. She was my aunt, and I loved her. She was a very loving, caring individual, but more than anything, she was concerned about her people.”
Dora Joyce Prieto
Prieto succeeded her older sister, Eileen Miguel, as Tribal Chairman in 1966, continuing the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians’ efforts to bring economic prosperity to its members and reduce outside intrusions into Tribal affairs.
Prieto was one of the first Agua Caliente Tribal members to graduate from college. Her sister, Corrine Siva, once shared a memory from Prieto’s childhood that hinted at her accomplishments to come: “My mother had to buy the newspaper when [Dora] was going to grade school,” she recalled. “Even then, she was studious.” As a child growing up in Palm Springs in the 1930s and early ’40s, she bathed and played in the Tribe’s Hot Mineral Spring. She’d use a support bar in the bubbling springs to go as deep as possible, then let go so water pressure would shoot her back up “like a rocket.”
The Palm Springs Spa Hotel had been open six years when Prieto became Tribal Chairman, yet disputes between Tribal and municipal leaders over the Tribe’s authority to determine the use of its own land continued as the city asserted the right to determine the zoning of Reservation land within the city’s boundaries.
The 1960s are known as the beginning of the Self-Determination Era, when the federal government created programs and policies to promote Tribal independence. But realities on America’s reservations were often different than pronouncements from Washington, D.C.
Prieto led efforts to reform a so-called guardianship and conservatorship program that restricted the ability of some Agua Caliente people to control their own land and finances. Investigations into the program’s abuses in Palm Springs, such as large fees, led to a Pulitzer Prize for the Riverside Press-Enterprise newspaper in 1968.
Prieto continued her dedication to her people over the next three decades after leaving the council by founding scholarship programs to pay for college tuition for Tribal members as well as focusing on Tribal membership enrollment policies. She was working on the scholarship fund and enrollment ordinance from her hospital room in 2000 when she passed away from cancer at age 64.
edmund Peter “pete” Siva
Siva served as a member of the Tribal Council and as Tribal Chairman in the 1960s. He established the Palm Springs Indian Planning Commission and later served as its chair until his death in 2003 at age 66. The Planning Commission built on the work previously established to formalize land-use policies and to further Tribal sovereignty as well as cooperation with the city government. He was instrumental in securing the Tribe’s right to zone its own land.
The leader of the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce around that time once described Siva as a great listener who had a commanding presence when he spoke, adding that Siva “would listen to both sides of the issue and would always think about what’s best for the community.”
Siva was one of the Agua Caliente leaders who called out the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs for tying up the assets of Tribal members in joint bank accounts instead of individual accounts that gave them freedom over their own money. One report noted of Siva’s advocacy: “When tribal members refused to sign, they were urged to do so because others had signed – a ‘divide and conquer’ technique that [Siva] accused the Bureau of constantly using to control the Indians.”
Among his other achievements was helping to establish the Indian Health Clinic in Banning, which later expanded to other locations in the region to provide Tribal members with
accessible healthcare. Siva also served on the Agua Caliente Gaming Commission. Siva used his leadership positions to be a mentor to young people, particularly in athletics. He later joined coaching staff at the College of the Desert.
“He was a happy man, very gregarious, very insightful,” Tribal Chairman Richard M. Milanovich recalled after Siva’s passing. The two had known each other since they were teenagers. Milanovich added, “He understood if you were to knuckle under pressure, [the government] would come and take advantage. Peter understood that you had to stand tall and stand proud and express your opinion not with a word but with a mind and pen.”
Joseph Patrick Patencio
Patencio — sometimes referred to as “J. Patrick” or simply “Pat” — served on the Tribal Council for two years before becoming Tribal Chairman in the late 1960s.
Like Eileen Miguel and Dora Joyce Prieto, he was part of the Patencio family and seemingly born to lead. The family were leaders in the Kauisiktum lineage of Tahquitz Canyon, one of three lineages that later joined together to form the modern-day Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians government. His father was Joseph “Joe” Patencio, himself a past Tribal Chairman and considered by many as the last ceremonial leader of the Tribe.
Anthropologist Lowell J. Bean, Ph.D., who has a long association with the Agua Caliente and other Cahuilla people, wrote in 1995, “One cannot explain the maintenance of this Tribe’s strength without mentioning the inculcation of cultural pride that has occurred among members to their children. The elders, Alejo and Francisco Patencio, Pedro Chino, and, later, Joseph Patencio, were religious as well as political leaders. They taught their children, grandchildren, and others the cultural values fundamental to understanding Cahuilla history.”
The younger Patencio’s tenure on the
Tribal Council was marked by his work to foster closer cooperation with the greater community in Palm Springs. He also promoted the Tribe’s palm tree–filled Indian Canyons. The canyons were home to the Cahuilla people since time immemorial and feature in the Tribe’s ceremonial bird songs.
Patencio, who was 29 when elected as Chairman, also took a practical approach to the job. He told a newspaper reporter upon election that his primary goal was “to make sure the Tribe progresses to put it a year ahead of last year.”
This story originally appeared in MeYah Whae, The Magazine of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Fall/Winter 2019-2020. To view back issues, visit aguacaliente.org.