Southern California's Morongo people, like the other bands of the Cahuilla near Palm Springs, have had much of their ancestral land taken from them.
The Morongo people were left with land that at the time was remote and unwanted. Today, they are a model of tribal self-determination and are building better lives for generations to come through economic ventures on the little bit of land they have left.
The real story is that tribal people are being made into new bogeymen once again. Records show that the state and the various water agencies over the past decade have done little to cut usage, increase conservation and reduce waste in agricultural operations, which are a huge drain on the state’s water resources. Yet somehow the Morongo band, which is bottling water for people actually to drink, is being demonized.
Further complicating this matter is the misunderstanding that tribes are governmental entities with their own set of laws, regulations and rules. Federal environmental protections often also apply. Headlines that blast there’s “little oversight,” as a recent story did in the Desert Sun, do a disservice.
Within the United States, the law basically acknowledges just three types of sovereign entities—the federal government, state governments and federally recognized tribes. Each one possesses varying degrees of authority. Reporters covering Indian country should educate themselves on tribal governments and their inherent powers, rather than subtly casting tribal governments as not "quite legitimate" or inferior.
For example, suggesting that the spring is “surrounded” by Morongo land is distorted. The Indians aren’t holding something captive. The spring is on the reservation, and the tribal government’s regulations and rules apply, as well as any that the federal government might want to try to impose.
Some people might not like this situation, just as some of them might want tribes to simply go away. But tribes are here, and they aren’t going anywhere, so it’s important to at least provide the full picture.
Water is indeed a huge concern in California. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla in Palm Springs, for example, has filed lawsuits against the local water agencies for a history of overdrafting our groundwater and harming water quality.
But dissing tribal governments won't solve any of the problems that we are facing here in the desert with the drought. More well-rounded perspectives might.
Travis Armstrong of Palm Springs is a graduate of the UCLA School of Law and has served on the editorial boards of three newspapers in California, including the San Jose Mercury News, where he covered legal affairs for the opinion pages. He is an enrolled member of the Leech Lake Reservation Band of Ojibwe, Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.