The Woman Leads

Sheila Grattan History 0 Comments

Palm Springs 75th AnniversaryIt was April Fool’s Day, 1921, when Juana Saturnino Hatchitt gave birth to a girl baby inside a canvas tent protected from Palm Springs Section 14 tribal earth by a hardwood floor. In a touch of irony, Juana and her husband Orion Garfield Hatchitt named the baby Viola (Violet).

In spite of her birthday and reticent name, Viola, a quiet and observant child, was nobody’s fool and a violet that blossomed, in her third decade, into a tiger lily for her Native American people. (She later changed the spelling of her name to Vyola.) She led an all-women council that changed the financial destiny of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and the California resort communities of Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage.

You Can’t Eat Dirt, by Vyola J. Ortner and Diana C. du Pont, reveals the story of the woman and her carefully tended garden of female Indian leaders. Together, they refused to shrink or flinch when confronted by traditional male tribal hierarchy, the good old boys of Palm Springs, congressional representatives, and an endless chain of federal bureaucrats.

The book is a well-annotated compendium addressing the history of the Agua Caliente tribe and the history of Palm Springs, property rights and human rights, greed, economic development, and the government’s muscling of a sovereign people. Loaded with photos, documents, maps, and news clippings, it provides an excellent resource for scholars and historians. The book’s helpful timeline threads together its 264 pages in chronological order.

Of Two Worlds, Yet One Mind

A quarter Indian with a Native chieftain’s spirit and German diligence, Ortner grew up in two worlds. Through a child’s eyes, she idealizes the Section 14 dirt encampment of her youth. She remembers growing up in the diverse community, home to many poor and racially mixed families “all living harmoniously.” The homes were modest compared to many of the nearby early village adobes, but they were well maintained. 

Unlike her mother, who was sent with other Agua Caliente girls to the Sherman Institute, a government boarding school or Native Americans in Riverside, Ortner attended high school in Banning, as all Palm Springs students did until Palm Springs High School opened in 1938. Even though the tribe was a matriarchal society, Juana brought Ortner up to keep her opinions to herself.

The land saga that faced Ortner’s council began in earnest in 1876 when President Ulysses S. Grant established the Agua Caliente Reservation, consisting of 880 acres of downtown Palm Spring, the Section 22 area encompassing Tahquitz Canyon and Section 14, the area north and south of the Tahquitz Canyon Way bounded by Indian Canyon Drive on the west and Sunrise Way on the east.

President Rutherford B. Hayes expanded the boundaries, creating a checkerboard by granting the area’s odd-numbered square-mile parcels to Southern Pacific Railroad and the even-numbered parcels to the Agua Caliente people. By the time Vyola was in high school, her tribal relatives had become marginalized by Palm Springs’ Euro-American settlers, who employed legal tactics to wrest away the desert land allotted to Native residents, and the federal government operatives, who denigrated them by controlling their property rights to the point of worthlessness.

The Mark of a New Era

When Albert Patencio, the tribe’s longtime spiritual and ceremonial leader, died in 1951, the tribe was weakened by marriage to outsiders, disappearing tribal customs, and the loss of the Native language. Flora Patencio and Joe Patencio, who was to be the next ceremonial tribal leader, in a break from the past, burned the sacred kishumna’a ceremonial roundhouse and its cultural and religious artifacts.

This move broke the traditional male line of tribal succession at a pivotal time for the tribe. There were few males either mature enough or young enough to qualify for the council. In 1954, the first all-women tribal council was elected, chaired by Ortner with members LaVerne Saubel, Eileen Miguel, Flora Patencio, and Elizabeth Pete Monk.  

Even after much reflection at the age of 91, this intelligent and soft-spoken woman struggles to explain how she found her voice to take on the big boys from Palm Springs at the nation’s capital while empowering the other tribal councilwomen. It was the Eisenhower era, long before women began to push for rights, when Ortner and her council began networking and seeking legal help to out-maneuver the most skilled male Euro-American men at their own game.

All-women councils led by Ortner remained steadfast through small victories and setbacks. They wrote the tribe’s first constitution and by-laws in 1955 and made history in 1957 when Congress passed legislation giving Indians the right to lease their land for up to 99 years and to allocate land among tribal members and their progeny. 

When land leases made it feasible to develop Indian land, Ortner and her council hired Victor Gruen & Associates, a prestigious national architectural and planning firm, to launch the economic development blueprint for Section 14. They broke ground in 1958 for the William Cody-designed Palm Springs Spa Hotel.

Roundhouse Comes Full Circle

Ortner went on to serve as then-California Gov. Edmund Brown’s appointee to the Interstate Indian Council. She also became the first Agua Caliente tribal member appointed to the Palm Springs Planning Commission, where she served seven years, including terms as chair. She earned more municipal expertise on the city’s Architectural Advisory Committee and became the first and only tribal member elected to the Palm Springs City Council.

Eileen Miguel asked Ortner to help her redesign the tribal cemetery on Tahquitz Canyon Way. Gated and landscaped with rocks and native trees and plants, the cemetery was rededicated as the Jane Augustine Patencio Cemetery in 1983.

When the leaders decided to create a new tribal building, they appointed Ortner, in her eighth decade, as chair of the planning and building committee. The building is an evolution of the kishumna’a ceremonial roundhouse destroyed 60 years earlier. It is sacred and reserved only for tribal members and their guests at events rarely sanctioned by the tribal council, allowing Ortner in 2010 to share her passion for the building and grounds with her many friends her 90th April Fool’s Day.

Excerpts from You Can’t Eat Dirt, published with permission


How did Mrs. Vyola J. [Ortner] Olinger, who, a few years earlier, was living and raising a family in Downey, California, a Los Angeles suburb miles from the inland desert, find herself as the leader of her tribe and at the center of this unprecedented and historic real estate deal? Actually, Olinger had grown up on Section 14, having been born in Palm Springs as Viola Juanita Hatchitt on April 1, 1921. Her mother, Juana Saturnino Hatchitt, was a member of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and a part of its well-known Saturnino family, considered among the “first families” of Palm Springs. After attending the Sherman Institute, a government school for American Indians in Riverside, and working as a private nanny and, later, on the staff of the famous Desert Inn in Palm Springs, Juana Saturnino married Orion Garfield Hatchitt. The Desert Inn is where she met her future husband, the son of German immigrants who had settled in Missouri. As a young man, Orion left the Midwest for new adventures in California, first working as a barber in Los Angeles before bringing his trade to Palm Springs. The couple lived on Indian land in Section 14 that Juana had selected as an allotment, which they improved and developed in order to make a good living. They owned and operated rental cottages called Hatchitt’s Court, while also leasing some of their land to a third party, which managed Hatchitt’s Market, both prospering businesses that provided a steady source of income. Concurrently, Olinger’s parents worked the land; Orion harvested figs from the existing fruit trees, while Juana packed them for shipment to market via train.

“Being a Half-Breed Has Been Good for Me”

Defining the nature of successful leadership can be elusive, but a look at Olinger’s family background may yield some compelling clues. Olinger’s mother had married outside her tribe, falling in love with a man of German descent. As a result, Olinger grew up in two worlds, the American Indian and the Euro-American, moving effortlessly between them. As a tribal leader, her mixed ancestral heritage provided her with the circumstances and skills she required to work effectively within as well as outside the tribe. “I’ve always been able to work with everyone as a half-breed,” Olinger once commented. “Being a half-breed has been good for me.” She reinforced this personal insight when she remarked, “I am very privileged because I am really part of both worlds. I view this as being positive, constructive … No one can pull the wool over my eyes.” Moreover, having lived away from Palm Springs and the tribe, she had a broader perspective on the world that afforded her a sense of freedom and lack of intimidation when confronting the many daunting obstacles she encountered as a tribal leader. Accordingly, she was neither cowed by the established tribal hierarchy nor checked by the powerful city fathers. She has said that she learned from her father to be enterprising and self-sufficient, and to value hard work.  From her mother, she drew inspiration to do the very best in whatever situation she found herself.  Beyond parental influence, though, Olinger possessed an innate belief that, as a woman, she could succeed equally alongside any man. This strong faith in self and a fierce determination guided her; and these qualities are key to understanding her success as a tribal leader.

“Opposing the Tribe’s Male Patriarchy”

Modernizing the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians became Olinger’s raison d’être. It was a long and difficult process — involving many different people and many complex issues — by which she would take control of her tribe, setting it on a firm foundation and, eventually, bringing economic prosperity to its members. Fearlessly opposing the tribe’s established male patriarchy — which was justifiably suspicious of the white male “fathers” in Palm Springs and Washington, D.C. — Olinger freely navigated the Anglo-American world in order to bring benefits to her people. Highly intelligent and practically oriented, she did not rebuff city and federal governments, but rather, willingly and knowingly, reached out to the “system” to help shape the tribe’s future. “We respect … individuals of good faith and governmental agencies,” Olinger once said, “to give us their opinion and expertise in land management and municipal affairs. However, we have the obligation as tribal members to our own people and the right under the laws of this nation to determine the use of our own land and the destiny of our tribe.” Armed with this belief and the knowledge that the Agua Caliente Cahuilla possessed valuable but unrealized resources, Olinger and her all-women Tribal Council struggled and persevered through “the worst of times,” reinventing a tribe and forever altering a city.

Modernists Versus Traditionalists

During Olinger’s term as chairman, she and the all-women Tribal Council created the tribe’s principal governing document of its modern era. The original “Constitution and By-Laws of the Agua Caliente Band of Mission Indians, California” was officially adopted on June 28, 1955. This written instrument of governance clearly stated the powers possessed by the tribe regarding Indian land. A signature proviso vested the Tribal Council with the authority “to administer the affairs and manage the business of the Band; to regulate the uses and disposition of tribal property; to protect and preserve the tribal property, including wildlife and natural resources.”

Magnets for Transient Leasing

With this legal foundation established, Olinger and the Tribal Council began assuming primary control over the “uses and disposition” of the tribe’s land. They did so first and foremost by tackling the federal government’s obsolete leasing laws. As first stipulated in 1910, “Federal Indian Policy” held that Indian land was subject to five-year-lease term limits for commercial and residential property, following the ten-year-lease term limits for agricultural property established in 1900. By the 1950s, these onerous restrictions had, for the most part, reduced Indian leaseholds to magnets for transient lessees, with no long-term vested interests and little ability to produce sufficient month/yearly income. The result was property that yielded nominal economic value. With legal input from Simpson (a tribal attorney), Olinger and her fellow Tribal Council members went straight to work with the singular focus of redressing this untenable situation.

For Olinger, it was patently evident that long-term leasing for Indian land must be implemented if the tribe were to enjoy economic prosperity. It was crucial for future tribal growth and progress. With Simpson at her side to guide her through the legal maze and confounding ways of the nation’s capital, she began traveling regularly to Washington, D.C., as well as to Sacramento, proposing new leasing legislation, testifying on its behalf, and lobbying for its passage. Her persistence led California Congressmen John J. Phillips and Clair Engle to form a bipartisan effort to introduce, in May 1955, “a bill to authorize the Tribal Council of the Agua Caliente Band of Mission Indians to lease a certain land of the Agua Caliente Reservation for certain purposes” for a term period of ninety-nine years. On August 9, 1955, not long after being introduced, this legislation was signed into law by President Eisenhower and enacted as the General Leasing Act, or Public Law 255. In its final iteration, it transformed the draconian five-year-lease term for residential and commercial Indian property into a twenty-five-year lease term, with a one-time renewal option of another twenty-five years. If the new aggregate lease term of fifty years was not the originally proposed ninety-nine-year lease term, it was still a tenfold advance that forever changed how Indian land would be leased. This was historic; it was the first long-term lease legislation applicable to Indian land.

“My Tribe Needs Vitamin M — Money”

“In July 1959,” Olinger recalled, “in one of my most memorable appearances before the U.S. Congress, I testified at a House Interior Subcommittee Hearing requesting the legislature to consider that ‘my tribe needs Vitamin M — Money.’ In other words, we needed to finalize the land allotment process and implement long-term, ninety-nine-year leasing. Without long-term leasing, I argued, tribal land would continue to yield only modest gains. The 99-Year Leasing Act would allow tribal members to make their land productive by entering into stable leasehold terms that would attract new business interests to our territories. In September 1959, after a long campaign, the House and Senate voted through the final bill authorizing ninety-nine-year leases for lands on the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation. President Eisenhower signed Public Law 86-326 into law on October 22, 1959.”

The Most Important Federal Laws Affecting Palm Springs

Eisenhower also authorized the Equalization Act of 1959, Public Law 86-339, which evened out the differing financial values of the Agua Caliente land allotment, regardless of their physical location. Given the rapid growth of Palm Springs, land values of the individual allotments ranged from $87,500 to $629,000. The Equalization Act rectified this distortion, providing economic fairness to all tribal members, no matter where their allotted land was located. These two new laws, described as the most important federal legislation ever affecting Palm Springs, also authorized as tribal reserves the famous Agua Caliente hot springs and two tribal cemeteries, as well as the Indian Canyons: San Andreas Canyon, Palm Canyon, Tahquitz Canyon and Murray Canyon.

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