Column: Agua Caliente Band serves as a model for First Nations

Agua Caliente leaders broke ground on a housing project in May 2014. Photo from Vallera Palm Springs

Historian urges Canada to look to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in California to learn how to work better with First Nations:
The roots of Agua Caliente settlement in Palm Springs goes back thousands of years. In the 1870s, the U.S. federal government established a large reservation, 13,000 hectares of which today incorporates much of Palm Springs, and parts of adjacent Cathedral City and Rancho Mirage. In all, according to United States Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs, “there are 1,175 commercial leases, 7,671 residential subleases and 11,118 time shares on Indian land leases under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs-Palm Springs Agency.”

In 1959, owing to the lobbying efforts of an all-woman tribal council, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Equalization Act, which enabled the Agua Caliente to develop the land through leases as long as 99 years. (Owners of the downtown Palm Springs condominium complex I have stayed in, for example, have leases that run until 2043, at which time the band will presumably renegotiate.) By the late Fifties, Palm Springs had attracted Hollywood celebrities from nearby Los Angeles, who greatly contributed to the growth and allure of the resort — which the Agua Caliente capitalized on.

The Agua Caliente’s first successful development was a mineral water spa that opened in 1960 (close to present downtown Palm Springs) and within three years had been expanded into the Spa Resort Hotel. In the 1990s, the band opened a companion casino that has since grown into a lavish and profitable enterprise. Last summer, the band decided to close the hotel, which is now being torn down to make way for a more luxurious hotel and spa.

Though admittedly different than the land and treaty rights involved in the Kapyong case, the Agua Caliente model is an impressive example of how negotiation and compromise can effectively function and how under the right framework a First Nation economic development zone can thrive. On occasion, the Agua Caliente has helped the city of Palm Springs make up budget deficits if federal, state and civic revenues are not sufficient.

“We are just like everyone else,” Millie Browne, chairwoman of the board of directors for the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum and member of the tribe’s Heritage Committee said in a 2013 interview. “We live in the community. We go shopping, we eat out, we go to the movies, go to the salon, coffee shops. Our kids go to public or private schools. We don’t have special schools. We are not isolated. Our reservation is intertwined with the community.”

Get the Story:
Allan Levine: A model for urban First Nation economic development (The National Post 3/16)

Join the Conversation