President Obama made headlines this past Friday with his “first” trip to an Indian reservation as president. Indian Country Today noted that his “trip to Standing Rock [was] the first visit to an Indian reservation by a President since Bill Clinton visited the Navajo Nation in 2000.” The Washington Post elaborated on this theme, noting that before Clinton, one had to go back to Franklin Roosevelt’s visit with the Eastern Cherokee in 1936 to find a President in Indian country. Such reportage represents a negative trend in the media, the academy, and, it unfortunately appears, in Indian Country today: overlooking California’s Native Nations.
While reading all of this, I happened to check my Facebook feed, whereupon I saw a photo of Jeff Grubbe, chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, standing in front of Air Force One. Grubbe stood with California Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Raul Ruiz to greet the President upon his arrival. After all, Obama’s plane was on the Reservation. Friday marked the second time Grubbe greeted the President on his third visit to Palm Springs this year alone.
The Agua Caliente Indian Reservation consists of a notorious “Golden Checkerboard.” The federal government offered the Southern Pacific land grants of alternating township sections as an enticement to build a railroad through the region in the late nineteenth century. As a result, every-other square mile of the city of Palm Springs (including the airport) and much of neighboring Cathedral City is reservation land. The area has long been a playground for the rich and famous, including presidents. Author Ray Mungo noted that every commander-in-chief since Harry S. Truman has visited the valley, and with the airport on Reservation lands, however unwittingly, they have all visited Indian country.
True, most, if not all, of these visits were not to the tribe, nor did presidents acknowledge or speak to tribal members or leaders upon arrival. In February, Chairman Grubbe told reporters that though Obama would not formally visit the tribe, he felt honored to be able to welcome him to the reservation and to the home of the Agua Caliente Tribe.
Historic visits hardly recognized the tribe, however. In 1962 President Kennedy reputedly stayed at Bing Crosby’s desert home with Marilyn Monroe while two years later, Lyndon Johnson met with Mexican President Adolfo López Mateos to discuss the location of international border. Johnson, Ford, and Reagan all enjoyed the tribe’s Indian Canyons Golf course, however.
For outsiders, including the President, it can be easy to lose California Indians amid the urban sprawl that has enveloped their lands and misconstrue their success operating in two worlds as mere assimilation. However, such a misconception is both a great mistruth and tragedy. Whether for a national park or world-class resort, the people of sec-he, the boiling waters, never gave up their homeland; and while Truman and Ford enjoyed the sunshine and golfing, the Cauhilla fought valiantly against the injustice and poverty that, at times, engulfed them. After long, hard decades of struggle, the Cahuilla people are beginning to find success in ensuring their sovereignty and cultural survival.
Indeed, as President Obama enjoyed a round of golf at Palm Springs’ famous Thunderbird Country Club late Friday afternoon, tribal people gathered around a half-moon altar across the Coachella Valley for ceremony. Together with William Madrigal, Jr. and Raymond Huaute, Milanovich recently formed the non-profit Páayish Néken to revitalize the Cahuilla language across the nine Cahuilla reservations and throughout the region. The labors of earlier generations and the tireless efforts of elders, present and passed, and have ensured that traditional cultures of the people of Southern California are finding new life. At the end of the month, the Morongo Reservation will hold its 12th Annual Cultural Heritage Days with traditional foods, barbecue, rodeo, birdsinging and dancing, cultural demonstrations and workshops, followed by a night of peon games. Similar events happen in the area throughout the year.
From the Mission Indian Federation to Wallace Newman, the people of Southern California Indian Country have made important, if often overlooked, contributions to the history of Native America as a whole. Americans, especially those within Indian Country, should not overlook the Cahuillas, Chemehuevis, Cupeños, Kumeyaays, Luiseños, Mohaves, and Quechans, their culture, and their contributions. To do so is to deny the truth, forget history, and trample upon the sovereignty these Nations have preserved against incalculable odds over the centuries.
T Robert Przeklasa is a research associate with the California Center for Native Nations and a doctoral candidate in Native American History at the University of California, Riverside.