The big gamble

Indians used to be on the bottom in Palm Springs, but gaming put them on top. Now tribal leaders are accused of exploiting workers and abusing their neighbors. Will the backlash topple their empire?

By Roberto Lovato
Published February 17, 2004 1:30AM (UTC)
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In a town best known for glitz and golf, the 392 members of the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians enjoy a rare and ever-increasing kind of power. Thanks to Indian sovereignty laws, even members of the city's rich, white Republican majority, living in estate-studded canyons near multimillion-dollar hotels, resorts and office buildings, must regularly stifle their concerns about the tribe's grand designs for Palm Springs. The tribe's power was on full display at the recent opening of its Spa Resort Casino, built near the hot springs that drew both the Cahuilla Indians -- the tribe devastated in Helen Hunt Jackson's mythic 1884 novel of California, "Ramona" -- as well as later migrants who founded this legendary playground for the wealthy.

Rising up six stories, the $85 million casino is the tallest building in the city (Palm Springs codes only allow three stories, but sovereignty means zoning codes don't apply), a cream-colored, domed, 130,000-square-foot stucco palace symbolizing Agua Caliente ascendance. It opened with a November kickoff that combined Vegas glitz with Indian ceremony. An invitation-only VIP reception began with the disco thump of the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" pounding from giant speakers; on the huge stage a deep purple backdrop displayed a giant image of the sacred brown basket that is the logo of the Agua Caliente. Tickets were hotly pursued, but the best seats from which to see the more than 50 performers -- including Dionne Warwick, "American Idol" star Ruben Studdard, flying acrobats and glittering dancers -- went to tribe members and their families, along with a few elected officials and other special guests. They were warm and cozy and cordoned off from the 4,500 mostly white members of the black-tie and evening-gowned audience that huddled together for warmth in mobile stadium stands set up in the parking lot behind the new casino.

To some in attendance, the role reversal that night -- warmth and access for tribe members while the white and wealthy shivered on the margins -- was a happy irony. These tribe boosters see tribal leader Richard Milanovich and his lieutenants, clad in tuxedos or black dresses that night, as 21st century defenders of Indian sovereignty and culture, comparable to warriors like Tecumseh, 19th century Cahuilla Indian leader Antonio Garra and, more recently, the American Indian Movement (AIM) activists who in the 1960s and '70s protested the government's mistreatment and broken promises.

Yet to a growing chorus of local, state and national critics, local Indian leaders are just wrapping themselves in colorful flags of Indian sovereignty to disguise unneighborly, even exploitative behavior. These critics say Agua Caliente tribal leaders are assuming something long reserved for the Mexicans and whites who decimated indigenous life in 19th century California: economic and political clout, which they wield without concern for the powerless. Today, such critics argue, the victims of power are no longer agricultural or nomadic Indians, but the Mexican and white workers at Indian casinos, along with middle-class New Agers leasing native lands. Meanwhile, millionaire retirees are worried about casino-funded development projects snarling traffic and blocking their scenic vistas. Many of the wealthy retirees are used to wielding political clout; here they find they have none.

The most visible front of the new class and race struggle is a pitched battle between the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) International Union and Agua Caliente tribal officials, which one labor leader says is "the first full-blown casino unionization fight in the country." They say the battle has national importance, as Indian tribes try to draw business away from the unionized gaming industry in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Contributions from Indian tribes to Democrats became a national issue during the state's October recall election, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has promised to give the tribes' gaming contracts new scrutiny as he looks for ways to close California's budget deficit. Sensing that the tribes' political power could be waning, big non-Indian gaming interests are backing a new ballot measure to limit the tribes' gambling reach and force them to pay more to the state. Milanovich, meanwhile, is retaliating with his own ballot initiative, and other tribes are split on how to respond.

Whatever the national implications, it's clear that here in Palm Springs, a reinvigorated Agua Caliente sovereignty, bolstered by the region's fastest-growing industry, gaming, has become the vortex of race and power conflicts, as expressed in casino labor struggles, zoning battles, and other land-use issues. Behind the seamless service and smiles on demand at the tribe's two casinos, Agua Caliente's smoky, windowless gaming rooms (casino air is regulated by Indian, not California, law) have become a hothouse for a new kind of clash over conflicting visions of racial and economic justice.

Whether Indian gaming represents the genesis of paradise, or paradise lost, depends on who's talking.

"Indians around here used to be discriminated like blacks were. No, they were worse off," recalls Palm Springs resident Gabrielle Torres. A self-described "Mexican-American with Yaqui blood," the 45-year-old Torres has two children with a member of the Agua Caliente tribe, which owns every other parcel of land on what locals call the "Golden Checkerboard" that is the map of Palm Springs. Born and raised in this desert city of over 42,000, the gregarious Torres flinches when she recalls how her fellow Indian first-graders at Cahuilla Elementary (located near the new spa casino on East Amado Road) had to wait for Mexicans, white people and blacks before eating lunch. They were, she says, "considered dirty, mentally retarded and the children of drunks. All the Agua Calientes had was land and dirt in the worthless desert."

Now all that has changed, says Torres, a receptionist at a local real estate office, looking at a map of downtown Palm Springs, home to some of the most coveted commercial land in Southern California. "Since casinos opened, the shoe is on the other foot," she says. Ever since the passage of Prop 1A, the California initiative legalizing slot machines on Native land, "people see dollar signs when they see Native Americans," Torres says. "Now all the white guys wanna marry Indian girls because they know that after age 18, some of these girls will get about $150,000 per year. Looks like the gold diggers are back." To Torres, the role reversal is fair play. "The white man just came up, took what he thought was his, and gave the Indians the leftovers because he thought it was right. He thought he was superior.

"Now," she adds, "the Indians are a lot better off. Our kids are going to be treated with a lot more respect. My kids think they're equal with white kids now -- or better."

Things look different to Ron Wheeler, a 37-year-old bartender with AIDS who works at the Spa Resort Casino. Wheeler says he has long identified with the history of blood, bigotry and broken promises in Native America. "When I started working at the casino, I felt that being gay myself there was a kindred spirit between us." Gays and Indians, he notes, have "watched friends and family members decimated by disease and stuff beyond our control. With gay people it's been AIDS; with them it's been lots of diseases, government inaction, lack of healthcare, that sort of thing. I felt like a kindred spirit and I was right." Despite growing up in a household that was "sort of gun-toting, Republican and right wing," Wheeler says his affinity with tribes like the Agua Caliente even led him to activism on their behalf. When Proposition 5 (a precursor to Prop 1A that was declared unconstitutional by the California Supreme Court in 1998) was first announced, Wheeler says he was among the first to gather signatures to get it on the ballot.

Now disenchanted with the tribe because of what he calls the "broken promises to workers," Wheeler is among the most vocal of more than 2,000 mostly white and Mexican workers at casinos and resorts run by the Agua Caliente. Another outspoken worker, Graciela Ramirez, a maid who migrated from Guanajuato, Mexico, complains about the "intimidation, surveillance, threats and reprisals" against many of her coworkers. Ramirez laments that, despite the casino-driven shifts in race relations that impress Gabrielle Torres, her mestizo children don't get from casino profits what every one of the Agua Caliente children does: full medical benefits. (Tribal children also receive childcare, scholarships and a host of other benefits, and individual adult tribe members receive retirement and healthcare and other benefits)

"The majority of us are immigrants," she says of her fellow workers. "Like the Indians, we come from an exploited pueblo [people]. Most of us have Indian blood; we eat chiles, frijoles and nopales because of our Indian culture. We're working for them and it doesn't cost them anything to give our children benefits. It's ironic that people who have been so exploited, whose lives have been so destroyed, are now acting just like the gringos who exploited them," says Ramirez, who has filed complaints against the Agua Caliente tribe for alleged physical and psychological intimidation, increased pressure on the job and other classic anti-union tactics.

Wheeler and Ramirez and other workers say their right to organize was promised under a Tribal Labor Relations Ordinance (TLRO). But tribal authorities want workers to handle grievances through the sovereign structures established by and peopled by the tribes -- on sovereign land, the Tribal Labor Panel is the labor authority of last resort -- and some workers and unions see these as kangaroo courts where grievances have not been taken seriously. Workers and HERE say they have filed countless complaints about Agua Caliente casino benefits and wages (which average about $8.93 an hour, according to a UCLA study, below the rates at unionized casinos), as well as dozens of alleged acts of intimidation, surveillance and threats against workers. A report by Coachella Valley Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), a coalition of community groups supporting the Agua Caliente workers, concluded that "the TLRO allows the Tribe to continue to intimidate workers through an anti-union campaign and does not provide adequate protections for workers."

So the increasingly vocal demands by Wheeler, Ramirez and other workers for better health benefits, the right to unionize, and better wages drive a labor struggle with implications far beyond the desert resort town. Representatives of HERE Local 309 and Palm Springs locals are investing significant resources to back the bartenders, maids, dishwashers, slot technicians and other Agua Caliente casino and spa workers in a conflict that could redraw the economic and racial map of Palm Springs -- and perhaps the state. Industry experts say the struggle between the workers and tribal authorities of casinos run by the Agua Caliente -- the first California tribe to build two casinos -- will define future labor-management relations in the Indian gaming industry as a whole.

Labor officials prepare for nothing less than a war of attrition as California's stealthy and mega-powerful Native casinos sack Caesar's Palace and the pyramids of Luxor in the heavily -- 70 percent -- unionized Vegas gambling empire, to become the largest gaming market in the country by 2008. Union advocates say non-union California tribes like the Agua Caliente are marching down the low-wage road to competitive advantage against Las Vegas and those California Indian casinos that have signed neutrality agreements allowing the union into the casinos.

Unlike the Lytton band of Pomo Indians, the Pala band of Mission Indians, and other California tribes, the Agua Caliente leaders have made no such agreements and instead interpret union pressures through the prism of sovereignty: "Now the unions are using attacks on sovereignty as an attack on race by going after the treaties, trying to abrogate all treaties and saying tribes are not separate people and that they should be assimilated into society like everybody else," says tribal chairman Milanovich. Regardless of their position on unionization generally, and on the Agua Caliente struggle in particular, most tribal representatives interviewed believe the current wave of attacks on casinos and sovereignty can only have a negative impact on California Indians.

Milanovich and the other elected tribal leaders answer Agua Caliente casino worker and HERE claims of exploitation, surveillance, threats and intimidation with counter-accusations of "lies, threats, pressure and even criminal conduct" on the part of the union and its supporters. A tribe-sponsored Web site, Commitment to Employee Democracy, offers visitors "the truth about HERE and its front organizations." Reminders of Native sovereignty color expensive full-page Spanish- and English-language ads in local and statewide newspapers with messages like "We're not new to the desert. We've always been here. Our commitment to the community is strong. After all, we've been here for more than 2,000 years."

Although some tribal leaders were radicalized by the movements of the 1960s, Milanovich adopted a different approach to attacking the centuries-old problems of poverty, disease and exploitation. The MBA and former infantryman nearly joined California's John Birch Society, according to the Los Angeles Times, as others were joining the American Indian Movement. He and his fellow tribal leaders embraced gaming casinos when Coachella Valley's own Cabazon band of Cahuilla Indians first sued the federal government and won the right to organize bingo on Native land in 1987. Since that time, Agua Caliente and other California tribes have adopted newer, more mainstream and cash-intensive methods of political persuasion, including lawsuits and lobbying, to secure and expand the legalized gaming they say brings self-sufficiency. In 2000, some of the richer tribes pooled their resources and successfully used California's notorious initiative process to gain approval of Proposition 1A, which passed with 65 percent of the vote. Sympathetic voters decided gaming might advance the self-sufficiency of the state's Indians.

At a time when tribal might matters to increasing numbers of non-Indians in Palm Springs and elsewhere, Milanovich is widely recognized as one of most powerful Indian leaders in the country. But while the great majority of California's tribal leaders are Democrats, Milanovich is a staunch Republican (he was among a select group that donated $100,000 to the George W. Bush Presidential Inaugural Committee) and is known for regularly disagreeing with his peers. Milanovich says that at a meeting of state tribal leaders to discuss strategy around the recent recall election, he advised against heavy contributions to the campaign. "I said, 'We're going to be labeled a special interest group,' and that's exactly what happened."

Benefactors of Agua Caliente largesse include several local politicians, Democratic and Republican, from U.S. Rep. Mary Bono and members of the California Legislature to Palm Springs City Council members and mayoral candidates. Last year, the Agua Caliente tribe joined an elite political club that includes the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, Phillip Morris and the SEIU, putting $429,500 into California campaign coffers to become one of the state's largest single political contributors. This year, California tribal gaming leaders emerged as the single largest source of money ($11 million) for recall candidates, followed by unions, which contributed more than $10 million. The distribution of casino profits, whether it's political, tax-based, intertribal or intratribal, stirs the political passions like few other issues. But Milanovich and others point to the tribes' $6 million in charitable donations, to everyone from Big Brothers and Big Sisters, charities helping victims of Southern California fires, numerous police programs, and the Desert AIDS Project.

The charity hasn't silenced Milanovich's critics. Fallout from the two-year labor conflict at the Agua Caliente casinos has begun spilling onto the spotless streets that residents and business owners would prefer remain known as the sandbox of movies stars, presidents and others seeking sun, sin and salvation in the desert. Last June, hostilities between tribal leaders and the coalition of religious and community groups pressing worker demands intensified when Father Miguel Ceja and 20 other members of the Coachella Valley Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice -- one of the "front groups" denounced on the tribal Web site -- approached Milanovich as he was walking to his car in the parking lot outside tribal administrative offices. After Milanovich rejected requests that he sign a "code of conduct" recognizing the right of Agua Caliente casino workers to organize, the exchange eventually led to the removal of Ceja and other CLUE members by Palm Springs police. Milanovich accused Ceja -- pastor of the now predominantly immigrant church that was once the favored place of worship of John and Robert Kennedy and Frank Sinatra -- of using threats and abusive language. And in a letter to casino employees, he wrote: "In all my years in Palm Springs, I would never have believed that a priest would behave like a common thug and peddle the union's lies. It is a sad day when people believe that this conduct is acceptable."

Ceja says that he and CLUE representatives only wanted to make personal contact with Milanovich. The Jesuit-trained pastor of Our Lady of Solitude church, located within preaching distance of the leather-walled interior of Liberace's Palm Springs playhouse, rejects the tribal leaders' version of events, "I think they targeted me because my church is right down the street, because many of the workers complain to me about how they are treated at the casino," he says.

When he was an impressionable student at Palm Springs High, Ceja witnessed the same mistreatment of Agua Caliente Indians that Gabrielle Torres did. He credits a member of the Agua Caliente tribe and fellow Palm Springs High school graduate, Miguel Prieto, with awakening the political vocation that later took on religious proportions. In the 1970s, a time in which radical politics like those of AIM prevailed among Native Americans, Prieto posted huge signs on Bob Hope Drive, a short walk from the rounded turrets, lavish landscaping and imported palm trees of the new spa casino. The signs criticized the U.S. government and whites for their treatment of Indians. "One of the signs had a picture of the Indian on the tired horse bent down and on the bottom of it said, 'The first to come are the last to be served.'" Ceja has served the last and most exploited in his own ministries: He worked for a time in El Salvador and among Mexican Indians in Chiapas, then returned to Palm Springs and began ministering to the left-out in his hometown. It turned out that many of the downtrodden were employed in the growing casino business.

Likewise, AIDS survivor Bill Gonzalez, who says he moved to the area inspired, in part, by Native spirituality, is now a fierce tribal critic. Gonzalez, a follower of New Age guru Marianne Williamson, was attracted to the canyons long venerated by the Agua Caliente. But this past February Gonzalez and his partner formed Palm Springs Allied Homeowners (PSAH) after two Agua Caliente tribe members, Paula Bleile and Lisa Bleile Belknap, who own the land on which Gonzalez and 52 other homeowners built their $280,000-$400,000 homes, raised their land-rental fee from $35 to $320 per month. Though the homeowners are embroiled in legal proceedings against the Bleile sisters individually, Gonzalez and PSAH maintain that the issue could be resolved by the leader of the largest landowning group in town. "If Richard Milanovich and the tribe really wanted to solve this problem, they could stop it in its tracks and insist that the two sisters and their lawyer negotiate fairly and equally with us, but he doesn't," Gonzalez says.

In response to what they perceive as Agua Caliente stonewalling, Gonzalez and PSAH wrote numerous letters to Rep. Bono and other elected officials and met with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other local, state and federal officials. "The message that's being given to us is 'Don't mess with the Indians. Don't piss off the Indians. They help the city. They have sovereignty,'" he says.

Gonzalez, who says he's been called "the little Mexican" by some Indian and non-Indian locals and by BIA representatives since speaking out, was recently arrested outside of Agua Caliente tribal offices for picketing too noisily for this very conservative resort town. He insists the Indians have betrayed their own claim to social justice. "I've gone to spiritual events with Native Americans," he says. "What happened to the crying Indian, the one who had a tear rolling down his face while he watched a lake with a duck covered with oil on it? That's definitely not the image of the Native American that I have today. That truly was the image I had. Today I feel like I did when I found out that that guy [in the commercial] wasn't even Native American."

Though a few million dollars beyond Gonzalez on the Palm Springs economic scale, wealthy local retirees echo his disappointment. "We used to wake up to the sound of birds chirping. Now, we wake up to this noise, to dust," says a 59-year-old retiree and socialite, over the rumble of tractors and trucks flattening the Agua Caliente golf course being remodeled in front of her $800,000 home, just a short hike from the world's largest desert palm oasis. She doesn't want her name used, fearing retribution. But she says she and her husband bought their home an hour after seeing Indians doing chants beneath flying hawks during a winter solstice celebration that altered their lives two and half years ago. "We had big trees, we had a lake," says the woman, staring out at Native land that she says is slated to house a hotel and the $40 million Agua Caliente museum, which she worries will increase traffic on the two-lane road to her Edenic estate. "We thought, 'This is so spiritual. We love it.' But not anymore."

Like many who come to the region expecting a certain kind of Indian, some of the tribes' critics were disappointed by what they found -- which annoys local Indian leaders no end. They say they're tired of trying to break out of the prison of romantic stereotypes. "We have to provide therapy to these people so they can wake up and see we don't live in tepees and hunt buffalo anymore," one leader complains. And many California Indian representatives say growing anti-casino sentiment masks a dangerous desire to return to the not-so-distant days when, in the eyes of many non-Indians, the only good Indian -- spiritual or not -- was a poor Indian.

"They never cared about who we were or where we were as long as were poor, but now that we have economic independence, people are very concerned about who we are and where we are," says Milanovich.

Whether someone can again take advantage of the nouveau power riche tribes may well depend on California governor and Palm Springs regular Arnold Schwarzenegger. The actor turned politician capitalized on growing anti-Indian-casino sentiment by producing glitzy ads attacking the influence of tribal "special interests."

"Their casinos make billions, yet they pay no taxes and virtually nothing to the state," he said. "All the other major candidates take their money and pander to them. I don't play that game."

In his effort to overcome state's colossal economic problems, Schwarzenegger says he wants to renegotiate gaming compacts and force tribes like the Agua Caliente to pay taxes. Meanwhile, gambling interests have announced a ballot initiative that threatens the entire Indian gaming enterprise in Palm Springs and the rest of California. The proposed initiative forces tribes to renegotiate their compacts with the state within 90 days or face consequences. It stipulates that, if the tribes fail to comply, five California racetracks and 11 card rooms (neither of which has legalized slot machines yet) will be authorized to run more than 30,000 slot machines in California. The racetracks and card rooms have the advantage of being located much closer to urban populations. The initiative also seeks $1 billion from the tribes for rapidly diminishing state coffers. Last year, California's 62 tribes with gaming compacts paid $130,000,000.

Schwarzenegger, who wants tribes to pay 25 percent of their profits to the state, opposes the new initiative because he prefers to renegotiate compacts with the tribes himself. Milanovich and the Agua Caliente tribe have launched their own initiative, which would require tribes to pay 8.4 percent of their profits while also allowing tribes to expand their gaming activities to include an unlimited number of slot machines as well as other games like craps and roulette. Other California tribes are lukewarm to the Agua Caliente initiative and some have already entered into negotiations with Schwarzenegger's lead tribal gaming negotiator, Daniel Kolkey. But Milanovich and the Agua Caliente are about to spend $2 million to collect qualifying signatures and say they are prepared to shoulder most of the $50 million it will take to gain voter approval for their initiative.

It's clear that Indians in Palm Springs and elsewhere who've gamed their way into the global economy are going to fight to keep what they've earned, whether the opponents are labor unions, wealthy retirees, other casinos or the powerful governor. Recalling the days when the Agua Caliente lost their land to those seeking paradise, Milanovich says he won't bend for paradise-seekers in the Indian new age. "When we didn't have any resources, they were able to take complete advantage of us," he says scornfully. "They can no longer do that."

Roberto Lovato

Pacific News Service contributor Roberto Lovato ( is a New York-based writer.

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