Palm Springs benefits from Agua Caliente Band’s success


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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Strange as it may seem given the (usually) warm weather, at the moment one of the hot topics in the Palm Springs area is the new local hockey team, the Coachella Valley Firebirds.

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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Strange as it may seem given the (usually) warm weather, at the moment one of the hot topics in the Palm Springs area is the new local hockey team, the Coachella Valley Firebirds.

The Firebirds, the American Hockey League affiliate of the NHL Seattle Kraken, are in the Pacific Division and could theoretically play the Manitoba Moose in a conference final best-of-seven-game series. Right now, of the two, the Firebirds are the better team, sitting in second place, while the Moose are in third place, in their respective divisions.

Since January, the Firebirds have been playing in the new US$250-million Acrisure Arena, which seats 10,000 and is about 26 kilometres from downtown Palm Springs. At one point, the arena was to be located in the middle of downtown via a partnership agreement between the Oak View Group (OVG), a company that operates entertainment and sports facilities, and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the largest property owner in the Greater Palm Springs area, which owns the downtown site.

That partnership was amicably terminated in September 2020 and OVG found a new partner for the arena closer to nearby Palm Desert. Instead, on the downtown site, the band is erecting an impressive plaza complete with a cultural centre and museum documenting the Agua Caliente’s remarkable history and prosperity, an achievement that epitomizes perseverance and vision.

As of 2020, the band’s population was just 27,090. Its central administration employs more than 1,000 people who oversee a big enterprise. The band operates casinos, a resort hotel with a concert venue, two golf courses, nature and hiking reserves and, most importantly, holds 31,500 acres of reservation land that is spread across Palm Springs and the adjacent area. In 2022, its annual revenues exceeded US$500 million.

What’s more notable is that this commercial and property development success only came about in the past 60 years or so.

While archeologists trace the Cahuilla people’s presence in the region to thousands of years ago, the Agua Caliente Band, composed of several smaller groups, likely settled in the area about 350 to 500 years ago. Their subsequent interactions with the Spanish and Mexicans, who explored the desert area and learned about the hot springs that sustained its food supply, were fairly peaceful, though smallpox and measles epidemics caused much hardship and death.

The conquest of California by the Americans in the late 1840s during the Mexican-American War ultimately led to American colonization and seizure of Indigenous lands. In the post-U.S. Civil War years with the construction of railways, the administration of president Ulysses Grant sought to formalize Indigenous land rights.

In this division, the Agua Caliente Band fortuitously acquired sections of land located in present-day Palm Springs, nearby Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage and other areas in the vicinity.

The economic benefits of this decision were not realized for close to a century. As in Canada, the U.S. federal government sought to obliterate Indigenous culture and forced the Agua Caliente and other groups to send their children to government-operated schools to learn English, accept Christianity and become assimilated Americans. And, as in Canada, the schools were neither financed nor supervised properly and the children were abused; many died from tuberculosis and influenza.

The Agua Caliente survived this ordeal, including the government’s attempt in 1887 to break up the reservations and allow band members to obtain their own personal allotments.

In the 1930s and 1940s, as Palm Springs developed into a resort for Hollywood celebrities and became more popular with tourists, the Agua Caliente could not initially develop the land they still held because of strict federal government laws that limited leasing arrangements to only five years and farm properties to 10 years. Such restrictions made it next to impossible to negotiate with banks and developers.

Moreover, the City of Palm Springs refused to service the band’s land and for a long time this property either sat desolate or was populated by transient residents.

The turning point came in 1959. After many years of lobbying from an all-woman band committee led by Vyola Ortner and assistance from lawyers and supportive congressmen, long-term leases up to 99 years were enshrined in law. Other laws and subsequent court decisions enabled the band to lease thousands of acres for the construction of the Palm Springs airport, stores, hotels and condominiums.

Because of the checkerboard division of the land in the 19th century, not every property in Palm Springs and the nearby cities are on the band’s land. But an estimated 29,000 residential properties are, and the owners of each pay a monthly lease of anywhere from $50 to $400 per month.

At the same time, the Agua Caliente band works closely with municipal officials in the region and it is in the band’s best interests, financial and otherwise, to keep Palm Springs residential owners — many of whom rent their homes and condos to the thousands of Canadians who visit here each winter — happy and content.

Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.

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