A painting of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians Tribal Council in the 1950s by local artist Jim Toenjes. The history-making all-women Tribal Council included, from left, Secretary Eileen Miguel, Vice Chairman LaVerne Saubel, Member Gloria Gillette, Member Elizabeth Pete-Monk, and Chairman Vyola J. Ortner.
PHOTO BY JIM TOENJES
Oral stories tell of Cahuilla women in influential roles generation after generation. One such individual is Menil, the Moon Maiden, who at creation established the social structure of the Cahuilla people, some of which continues in the modern day. In the 20th century, the actions of forward-thinking women led to the birth of the present-day version of Tribal government in the Palm Springs region. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians formally united ancient lineages from the Hot Mineral Spring and canyons.
By the midcentury, a glass-ceiling-shattering, all-women Tribal Council was leading the Agua Caliente people. They presided over changes leading to greater self-sufficiency and economic prosperity for the Tribe. In the process, they created a foundation for a future for Palm Springs itself. The Coachella Valley, and, for that matter, Indian Country would not be what it is today without their work and determination.
“We have been blessed with great Tribal leaders over the years,” says Jessica Norte, who served on the Tribal Council for seven terms under three Tribal Chairmen. Numerous family members also served on the Council, including her aunt, Barbara Gonzales Lyons, and grandmother, Priscilla Patencio Gonzales.
PHOTO BY FAB FERNADEZ
Norte had other inspiring leaders in her family, which was particularly helpful when she was elected to the Tribal Council in 2004. “People asked me to step forward,” she recalls, noting she was the youngest member of the Council that year. “I grew up knowing the need for Tribal leaders, and it always was in the forefront of my mind. I was always told to give back to our Tribe and care for our people.”
Persistency and adaptability have long been hallmarks of the Agua Caliente people, who since time immemorial lived in the geographic heart of Southern California, a crossroads of trade routes and cultural exchange. They stayed together as a people through the coming of the Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. governments, as well as California statehood, which brought new laws to extinguish Indian traditions, language, identities, and even the people themselves. The Cahuilla people of the desert and mountains persevered through the influx of settlers, the loss of land and resources such as water, smallpox and measles outbreaks, and droughts and floods.
Tribal Council Vice Chairman Candace Patencio Anderson, Member Virginia Siva-Gillespie, and Secretary-Treasurer Savana R. Saubel.
PHOTO BY KATE ANDERSON
All members of each Cahuilla family have been vital to their communities’ survival since creation. Yet the early decades of the 1900s saw Agua Caliente women in leadership positions in ways that reflected the changing times in Indian Country as America’s tribal communities adopted more formalized government structures.
Agua Caliente women, drawing on their culture, were particularly suited for the challenges ahead. Their ability to earn income from agriculture, domestic work, and crafts and arts such as making baskets and pottery built on their traditional roles. Engaging with settlers enhanced their social, language, economic, and political skills with the outside world. “They earned money that was theirs, individually, as it would have been traditionally,” noted the 1995 report “Archaeological, Ethnographic, and Ethnohistoric Investigations at Tahquitz Canyon,” whose lead author, Dr. Lowell Bean, has long worked with the Cahuilla. “This experience eventually enhanced their vigorous participation in political affairs.”
Tribal people across Southern California in 1919 founded the Mission Indian Federation to advocate for human rights and equitable treatment for Native Americans. To put this time in context, it wasn’t until six years later, in 1924, that Indians in the United States became citizens and eligible to vote. For the Mission Indian Federation, Cahuilla women used their skills to advance the organization’s goals, such as translating for elders who did not speak English.
“Agua Caliente women were soon engaged in further local, political, and economic affairs,” the report adds. “They began to take leadership roles in reservation affairs in the 1930s and continued to do so.”
The all-women Tribal Council, 1956 (from left): LaVerne Saubel, Elizabeth Pete-Monk, Gloria Gillette, Vyola J. Ortner, and Eileen Miguel.
PHOTO COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
And still continue, each bringing unique perspectives to Agua Caliente leadership.
Today’s five-member Agua Caliente Tribal Council includes three women leaders: Vice Chairman Candance Patencio Anderson, Secretary-Treasurer Savana R. Saubel, and Council Member Virginia Siva-Gillespie in addition to Chairman Reid D. Milanovich and Council Member John R. Preckwinkle III.
Patencio Anderson and Siva-Gillespie held Council positions in the 1990s and 2000s, returning to service in 2023. Both originally joined the Council during the advent and later growth of reservation gaming operations, including navigating the often political and legal matters involving the state and federal governments during those decades.
Economic development — to secure the future of the Tribe — was among their top priorities. But, as with other Council members, they have brought their individual concerns, based on needs seen in families and community. Patencio Anderson, for instance, has made higher education for Tribal families a top concern, and Siva-Gillespie is focused on healthcare for Tribal members. They had a foundation of female leaders to build upon.
“I was always told to give back to our Tribe and care for our people.”
1930s Bring a Changing World
People mainly think about the 1930s in terms of the Great Depression. However, the decade was a nuanced time in Palm Springs. Palm Springs still was a desert outback to much of the world during the preceding years. Too hot, too desolate, too isolated, with dusty roads to get there. But the Cahuilla knew the beauty and bounties of their desert, canyons, and mountains. Non-Indian settlers had been coming, including a small number of entrepreneurs capitalizing on the curative powers of the arid desert climate and the Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring. The spring, Séc-he (the Cahuilla term for “the sound of boiling water”), in present-day downtown Palm Springs is where both the Tribe and city derive their names.
But even as economic hardship took hold across the United States, Palm Springs was gaining notoriety as a resort playground for Hollywood stars and dealmakers. Emboldened, the town’s residents voted 441 to 221 for cityhood in 1938. The Agua Caliente Tribe had about 50 members in the 1930s, and the Cahuilla people were outnumbered on their own land.
It is in this land and its natural resources — so much of which Cahuilla had lost — that Agua Caliente female leaders can be seen as stewards safeguarding the future of their Tribe. Looking ahead to protect the future of their community is also a hallmark of Agua Caliente culture.
The Palm Springs region that exists today is the product of generations of struggles over land ownership.
In the 1800s, the federal government gave alternating sections of the desert, each a square mile in size, to the railroad as incentive to create rail service. The U.S. Senate never ratified 18 treaties that California tribal leaders in good faith negotiated with the federal government to set aside reservations. The state’s congressional delegation had these so-called Lost Treaties locked away for decades as classified documents. Presidential executive orders and other actions later created reservations in Southern California.
Elizabeth Pete-Monk with Betty Luce, president of the Palm Springs Business and Professional Women’s Club, in Brawley.
PHOTO COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Then the federal government in the late 1800s set out to break up communal reservation landholdings nationwide by allotting ownership to individual Tribal members. The allotment process resulted in the loss of millions of acres from tribal government control. In Palm Springs, disputes and legal actions, including a U.S. Supreme Court case, stretched the process well into the 20th century, many years after the federal government had officially abandoned the allotment policy.
Juana Hatchitt, a leading Agua Caliente activist at the time, framed that matter this way in a local newspaper article about a Tribal meeting in the mid-1930s: One group “wanted the Indian lands parceled and allotted equally to the members of the Tribe, whereas the other group wished to retain the reservation as Tribal land” owned and managed collectively. An attorney for Genevieve St. Marie, who filed a lawsuit over income from land she and others said already had been allotted to them, also participated in the meeting on her behalf. Historical records indicate that Agua Caliente women in the first half of the 20th century were not reluctant to find legal counsel to defend their family concerns over land.
During this time, Hatchitt, St. Marie, and another leader, Marcus Pete, traveled to Washington, D.C., to make statements at hearings to allow or make it easier for California Indians to sue for land and property taken from them. Female leaders would continue to be heard in the nation’s capital in this decade and the next ones to come.
Lena Welmas, also referred to as Lorene, in 1939 was assistant chief, and along with Chief Marcus Pete, her mother Romalda Lugo Taylor, and Lee Arenas formed the Tribe’s Executive Committee. She also served on the Tribe’s first Appraisal Committee. “Cahuilla women now were formally major actors in the Tribal affairs, as they would continue to be,” the Tahquitz Canyon report observed.
Closely connected to stewardship of the land was management of the Tribal government itself. In the United States, the Depression led to new economic and social policies including the Indian Reorganization Act, with the goal of allowing Tribal governments more control over their own internal affairs while promoting Western-style governance. Tribes across the country adopted or rejected parts of the Indian New Deal. Federal Indian agents or other officials often took actions conflicting with the progressive ideals of the new policies, such as diverting Agua Caliente water resources or attempting to take land for themselves.
In Palm Springs, there were other pressures as well as the Tribal community adjusted to changes in leadership structures based on lineages and heredity. Welmas and Hatchitt were prominent members of a “dissident” group in 1936 that questioned leadership structures. Other women involved in Tribal affairs at this time included Flora Patencio, Anna Pierce, and Carrie Pierce.
Welmas served as Tribal secretary in the early 1940s and later became the Tribal chairman (the Tribe using the title “chairman” regardless of gender). Tenaciousness was a distinguishing characteristic of her leadership, whether activism over land allotments, business-dealings, or even the hiring of the Tribe’s legal representation.
Welmas, along with Taylor, who was chairman in 1945, were among the first women in the United States to serve in such positions. The Tribal Committee in 1945 included Carrie Pierce Casero as vice chairman, LaVerne Saubel as secretary, and Flora Patencio and Joe Patencio as members — setting the stage to the nation’s first all-women Tribal Council to come in the next decade.
PHOTO COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
End of World War II and 1950s
It is sometimes said that Agua Caliente women stepped into leadership positions in part because of the shortage of men in the community during World War II. However, female leadership began well before the war and continued after it.
With the end of World War II, tourism in Palm Springs flourished and more visitors began buying land as well. Newcomers started more businesses. America’s economy was booming too. Agua Caliente Tribal Members had to defend full sovereignty over their own lands. Then, an all-women Tribal Council changed the equation.
Nationally, the 1950s were perilous times for America’s tribal members. Congress abruptly turned its back on Indian self-governance policies from the 1930s to usher in the Termination and Relocation Era, with goals of abolishing government-to-government relationships between the United States and federally recognized tribes. More than 100 tribal governments lost federal recognition and much reservation land across the country fell out of its protected federal trust status.
Agua Caliente leaders faced battles on both the national and local levels.
Over the past decades various iterations and names of the Tribe’s governing body existed, such as the Tribal Committee or Indian Tribal Council. In the 1950s, the Tribe created a governing body that most resembles the one today, a Tribal Council with five elected members, including a chair, that oversees government affairs and economic ventures. The Tribe at one point in the 1950s numbered 86 members, with about two-thirds being children.
Tribal Members Eileen Miguel, Priscilla Patencio, Peter Siva, and Anthony “Biff” Andreas Jr. were among those present at the opening of the Agua Caliente Tribal Building.
PHOTO COURTESY AGUA CALIENTE ARCHIVES
Under Welmas’ watch, the Tribe issued its first-ever comprehensive Annual Progress Report to establish leadership goals, rules of governance, and documentation of progress. The Council wrote: “It is the hope of the Council that these Reports will be continued regularly in succeeding years and used as a guide and milestone in the continuing development of the Tribe and its Reservation.”
The Tribal Councils during this decade also created the Tribe’s first constitution and bylaws. In addition to a governing document, the constitution also amounted to a pointed message to local, state, and federal governments that the Agua Caliente Tribe possessed inherent sovereign authority over its lands.
One of the most associated leadership names in the 1950s is that of Vyola J. Ortner. She lived her early years in Section 14, where her family operated businesses including leasing land to others, even though they never had formal title to the parcels because the allotment process remained uncompleted across the reservation.
She knew firsthand about the long-term importance of resolving legal and other obstacles to the use of Indian landholdings, making this a priority of her administration.
Ortner served as the Tribal Council’s vice chairman in the beginning of the 1950s. Then, by mid-decade, became chairman, alongside an all-women council of Eileen Miguel, Elizabeth Pete-Monk, Flora Patencio, and LaVerne Saubel. (Saubel was the mother of the late Tribal Chairman Richard M. Milanovich, who led the Tribe from 1984 until his death in 2012, and grandmother of current Tribal Chairman Reid D. Milanovich.)
Vyola J. Ortner.
PHOTO COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
The female leaders of this time worked toward the equitable settlement of the land disputes. Not only had some Tribal families lived on and improved certain parcels they did not outright own, there was also the fact that some properties were worth more than others due to each location. Federal and local officials had promoted so-called equalization plans to sell off valuable collective land assets of the Tribe to raise money to compensate families that would receive property of lesser value.
The all-women Tribal Council had other ideas, namely a plan to use reservation land to earn money to support an equalization plan and set the Tribe on a path to financial stability.
It worked to change federal law to permit the leasing of Indian land for 99 years to promote economic growth. The ability to lease land for only a handful of years had stymied opportunity for the Tribe to earn money.
Ortner was adept at getting points across in direct words, telling Congress and others, “My Tribe needs Vitamin M — money” and “You can’t eat dirt” (a phrase originally coined by Tribal Council Member Eileen Miguel). President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959 signed two bills supporting an equalization plan backed by the Tribe that allowed 99-year leases on Tribal land across the country.
Self-Determination Enters A New Era
The 1960s began with Agua Caliente women continuing to lead the Tribal government and implementing plans to bring economic security and stability to their communities. In many respects, their work foreshadowed what was to come nationally as Congress backed away from its termination and relocation policies in favor of tribal self-determination in the wake of the coming liberation movements in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
The most high-profile example during this era was the planning and construction of the Palm Springs Spa Hotel, on the site of the Hot Mineral Spring, on land the Tribe leased to a Beverly Hills developer. (The Tribe eventually purchased the lease back in the 1990s.) Pictures after the opening of the Spa Hotel often include Tribal chairman Eileen Miguel standing at the building’s colonnade, with a parade of dignitaries. The Spa Hotel ushered in a new era of tourism and development in Palm Springs and set out a new relationship between the Tribe and the city.
Eileen Miguel with Samuel W. Banowit in front of the Spa Hotel, 1963.
PHOTO COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Miguel was part of the all-women Tribal Council and in 1959 became Tribal chairman, a position she retained until the middle of the 1960s. Born just before the start of the Great Depression, the daughter of Miguel Welmas and Matilda Patencio took on leadership roles in her 20s. With her sisters Dora Joyce Prieto and Corrine Siva, she became known as one of “The Generals” for her reputation for taking on projects and completing them. In 1996, then Tribal Chairman Richard M. Milanovich noted: “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 succeeded her sister in the Tribe’s top leadership position in 1966. By then, the Spa Hotel had been open for business for six years. Nevertheless, city officials continued to assert the right to determine the zoning of reservation land within the city’s boundaries, which the Tribe under Prieto resisted.
She also led efforts to end the so-called guardianship and conservatorship program that restricted the ability of some Agua Caliente people to control their own land and finances. Conservators, among other abuses, charged large fees.
Women of the Agua Caliente Tribal Council
Since the mid-1950s
Vyola J. Ortner
Dora Joyce Prieto
Barbara Gonzales Lyons
Candace Patencio Anderson
Savana R. Saubel
1980s and Beyond
Barbara Gonzales Lyons was the first person to win office as a write-in candidate, to a one-year term on the Tribal Council. “That one year turned into my life,” she would later remark. Her eventual ascent to the Tribal chairman position in the early 1980s would mark the return of a woman holding the top leadership spot in the Tribal government since the 1960s.
In her position, she advocated for control over Tribal land, including a legal case that involved restrictions imposed by local officials on leaseholders of Tribal parcels. She also spoke out about a possible moratorium on bringing land into federal trust to be part of the reservation at a U.S. Senate Select Committee meeting held in Southern California and continued to champion the Tribal government’s right to participate in the political process, noting it was necessary as Tribal people had no elected voice in Sacramento.
Gonzales Lyons spearheaded efforts to make sure Palm Springs understood that the Tribal government had the final say on zoning but would work with city officials, as well, when possible. Earlier, the city had often downsized the zoning of Tribal parcels, making economic development unfeasible. “We felt we should have the ability to zone our own reservation,” she explained. Agreements with other nearby cities came as well.
Officials at the U.S. Capitol on July 11, 1958, after the introduction of a bill in the House of Representatives for equalization of land values on the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation. From left are Vice Mayor Ted McKinney, Tribe General Counsel Raymond Simpson, Congressman D.S. Saund, Tribal Council Member Dora Joyce Prieto, City Attorney Jerome J. Bunker, and Larry Pierce, grandfather of former Tribal Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe.
PHOTO COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Gonzales Lyons left the Tribal Council in the early 1980s but rejoined in 1993 as vice chairman to, among other projects, pursue economic development through gaming.
On the next generation of leaders, she says, “They are our future. You always have to protect the past and the future. Because without both of them, you’re no longer here.”
Protecting the past and safeguarding the future motivated current Vice Chairman Candace Patencio Anderson to become more involved in Tribal leadership, particularly in how the Tribe was operating and increasing self-determination through economic development.
A U.S. Supreme Court case in the 1980s paved the way for Las Vegas-style gaming on America’s reservations, but details such as regulations and the role of the states still lingered into the 1990s. Agua Caliente explored a partnership with Caesars World at one point. Californians overwhelmingly supported reservation gaming, including their supermajority support of Proposition 5 in 1998.
Serving in leadership roles came naturally for Tribal Member Mildred Pete-Browne.
“They are our future. You always have to protect the past and the future. Because without both of them, you’re no longer here.”
“My mother, Elizabeth Pete-Monk, was on the first all-women Council,” she says. “I traveled a lot with my mother when she was on Council. My ex-husband, Ray Patencio, was chairman of the Tribal Council, and I traveled a lot with him when he was chairman. I ran for Tribal office because I felt I had a lot of experience on how the government was run. I felt I understood the responsibility and that I could be beneficial to the Tribe.” Pete-Browne retired from the Tribal Council to start the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.
Browne’s daughter, Candace Patencio Anderson, followed in their path, holding Tribal Council positions from 1996 to 2000, again in 2002, and now as vice chairman.
Patencio Anderson’s family instilled in her the value that Tribal members “keep going no matter what.”
Barbara Gonzales Lyons.
PHOTO BY KATE ANDERSON
Preparation, adaptability, and persistence are recurring aspects of Cahuilla culture and its leadership. Patencio Anderson’s parents taught her that one must learn and adapt. To that end, she holds an MBA, was one of the Tribe’s management interns, and became a casino executive. Now, she promotes higher education for Tribal members. “One thing we can give you is an education,” she says. “No one can take that from you. We learn to keep our core values and the spirit of going on — the longevity and surviving.”
Likewise, Virginia Siva-Gillespie has returned to service on the Tribal Council after many terms in the 1990s and 2000s. Beginning with her previous service on the Tribal Council, Siva-Gillespie has advocated for establishing the Tribe’s gaming operations alongside her other Tribal Council members.
Every Council Member has his or her own story of how they became a Tribal leader. Some aspired to it at an early age. Others grow into it. Siva-Gillespie began going to Council meetings to connect with people who might have a picture of her grandmother; in the process, she learned more about the inner workings of her Tribe and was asked to run for office.
Gloria Gillette’s mother knew Siva-Gillespie’s grandmother. Gillette joined the all-women Council in the 1950s, filling the position of another female member, and became Siva-Gillespie’s confidant for advice and guidance. “Like an aunt, she would give me different perspectives,” Siva-Gillespie says.
Siva-Gillespie is known for passion for protecting the Tribe’s sovereignty and the rights of Tribal members. But she also has focused on other concerns as well, from healthcare for Tribal members to cultural preservation. As a Tribal Council member, she says, “We’re not there for ourselves” — a principle that has guided generations of Agua Caliente leaders.
Karen Welmas felt a call to duty when she was elected to Tribal Council in 2009, at the height of the national recession. With a background in business, the moment seemed right for her. “I wanted the Tribe to be financially responsible and responsive as a government and as a business owner,” she says, noting her “penchant for frugality … I also strongly felt, and still feel, that every Tribal member should serve on Council. I believe in public service.”
In a nod to John F. Kennedy, Welmas’ underlying philosophy is simple: “Ask not what your Tribe can do for you, but what you can do for your Tribe.”
PHOTO BY MARK DAVIDSON
One of the most important issues she worked on with the Council was laying the groundwork for establishing the Tribe’s water rights.
Welmas, who served as secretary-treasurer from 2009 to 2011, had strong women as mentors: Her grandmother, Lorene Lugo, was the first woman Tribal chairman, from 1952 to 1954, and her great-grandmother, Romalda Lugo, and aunt, Gillette, served on the Council in the late ’40s and ’50s, respectively.
Tribal Council Secretary-Treasurer Savana R. Saubel recalls attending her first Tribal Council meeting as a youngster, seeing leaders Richard M. Milanovich and Barbara Gonzales Lyons, and wanting to one day serve on the Council herself. She began attending Council meetings and served on her first committee while enrolled in school. “Serving on committees piqued my interest more,” says Saubel, who was elected to Council in 2011. “Chairman Milanovich took me under his wing.”
Following her term, Saubel served on the Agua Caliente Gaming Commission for several years and committed herself to taking advantage of every learning opportunity.
Karen Welmas and Jeff L. Grubbe with casino team members at the ribbon cutting for the Poker Room at Agua Caliente Casino Rancho Mirage.
KAREN WELMAS COLLECTION
“I want [Tribal] members to have confidence that I am a leader and that I have good ideas to add,” she says, “because at the end of the day, it’s always about membership and their wants and needs.”
Like many other Tribal leaders, Saubel had role models in her family, including her great-grandmother, LaVerne, who served on the all-women Council, as well as Uncle “Butchie” Richard M. Milanovich and cousin and current Tribal Council Chairman Reid D. Milanovich.
In this term, she and the Council are still focused on Tribal water rights and advancing activities around Séc-he, the site of the Tribe’s ancient Hot Mineral Spring and the new Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza, which includes The Spa at Séc-he and the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.
“I always knew that I wanted to be on Council, and this was a goal for me to serve my people, Saubel says.
She has advice for other women who want to serve on Tribal committees, commissions, and, ultimately, the Council. “Don’t let anyone stand in your way. For our younger members, and specifically our young girls, use your voice and ask questions, and make sure your questions are answered. If there’s something you want to do, go for it.”
This story originally appeared in Me Yah Whae: The Magazine of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Fall/Winter 2023.