Chairman Richard M. Milanovich
December 4, 1942 – March 11, 2012
Our community and the country have lost a courageous lion-hearted leader. A powerful voice for an entire culture will continue to be heard through the mystical whispers of time.
Once in a generation comes a leader who demonstrates the character of true greatness – courage, humility and selflessness. Richard Milanovich, tribal chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, was that kind of leader. He’s had the courage to take a stand against withering opposition in Washington and fight for all Native Americans. He possessed the humility to understand that his leadership was the legacy of his ancestors; and he took selfless risks that had inherent perils for potentially significant rewards for his people.
As the Tribal Chairman for nearly 30 years, Richard Milanovich has an extraordinary legacy. The story of his remarkable and courageous leadership is the substance of historical biographies, rare to witness in modern times. As the head of a sovereign nation, the passing of Chairman Richard Milanovich is akin to the loss of any head of state. His towering stature among Native Indian tribes across the country and within the halls of power in state and federal government is inestimable.
He served on the Tribal Council since 1978 and became Tribal Chairman in 1984. He was the inspirational leader of his people for over three decades while shaping the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians into one of the most politically prominent Native Indian tribes in the United States.
Although his position was chairman of a sovereign nation, effectively equivalent of a president or a prime minister, he preferred to be called Richard. He had a bottomless depth of empathy for people and was enormously gifted in navigating diplomacy of every level. His spirit of generosity and the integrity of his character were truly awe-inspiring.
He would surely bristle at these words of praise. He characteristically deflects credit for his accomplishments. While he would be the first to admit that he wasn’t a perfect human being, he was driven to make a difference and, of course, he did so in no small measure. “I don’t do what I do for recognition. The satisfaction I get is more than sufficient knowing I had a hand in meaningful decisions that have been good for the tribal members and the community,” he has stated. He has successfully planted his people firmly on a path to self-sufficiency into the 21st century.
Richard also believed the tribe should give back to the community and be an active partner. The cooperative relationship he crafted between the tribe and the City of Palm Springs was the first of its kind involving two governmental entities working hand in hand and it became a model throughout Indian country.
Consolidating a Tribal Community
The important tribal and community projects that he has presided over are numerous:
- The 1992 Cooperative Management Agreement with the State of California for the establishment (and protection) of the Indian Canyons Heritage Park;
- The Cooperative Agreement with the Department of Interior for the co-management of the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa National Monument in 1999;
- The historic Land Use Agreements with the City of Cathedral City, the County of Riverside and the City of Rancho Mirage;
- The purchase of the Spa Hotel in 1992; the addition of the Spa Resort Casino in 1995; development and construction of the Agua Caliente Casino in 2001, as well as the opening of the new $90 million Spa Resort Casino in 2003 and the Spa Hotel’s Well Spirit Fitness Center in 2004.
These projects and enterprises have brought a much-needed boost to the Palm Springs and Coachella Valley economy, but more important to the tribe itself. The revenue generated by tribal developments has allowed the tribe to develop self-sufficiency through education, cultural preservation, housing and health care programs.
In addition to this string of achievements, he also oversaw the construction and opening of the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa’s new hotel and expansion in 2008, followed by the completion of the tribe’s entertainment venue, The Show, in February of 2009.
Due to his substantial influence, Richard Milanovich has met with President George W. Bush and recently with President Barack Obama, as well as governors and major leaders of industry. But it was his common touch that has made him such a popular national figure. To be with him was to be in the presence of greatness. His warm magnanimous spirit and his deep respect for our common humanity have charmed everyone he encountered and disarmed the most recalcitrant politician. His sense of humor is legendary and his bellowing laughter infectious. To call him a friend was a privilege and an honor.
Fulfilling His Destiny
Richard came by his commitment to serve his people by familial influence. His maternal grandfather, Richard Amado Miguel, farmed the land of the reservation; Richard thereby inherited his devotion and respect for the land. He also followed in the footsteps of his mother, LaVerne Saubel, who served on the tribe’s only all-women tribal council that successfully lobbied Congress in 1957 in a landmark bill that passed Tribal Constitution By-Laws. This bill gave the Agua Caliente Tribe the authority for the first time to form a governing Tribal Council. La Verne Way in South Palm Springs is named after his mother.
His father, Steve Milanovich, was Serbian by birth which explains the unusual name for a tribal chief. Richard was born in 1942 on the Soboba Reservation in nearby San Jacinto. As his mother and father divorced when Richard was a boy, he was mostly raised by his mother. He and his sister Virginia grew up in what is known as the Section 14 area of Palm Springs, a hardscrabble piece of the Reservation that now houses some of Palm Springs’ glamorous hotels. He attended Cahuilla Elementary and Palm Springs High School.
Before serving on the tribal council and ascending to the chairmanship, Richard’s aspirations were not grand and his youth was fairly unexceptional with little indication that he would rise to such prominence. Richard served in the United States Army from 1960 to 1963. After his military service, he attended community college in Los Angeles and worked in retail. “My dream at the time was to have a men’s haberdashery, a fine men’s clothier.” Despite his life’s path taking him in a more meaningful direction, Richard always remained a handsome fashion plate with a flair for style.
He returned to Palm Springs in 1972 and ran unsuccessfully for tribal council three times before finally being elected in 1978 with the most votes ever at that time. It was his chance to carry on his mother’s work and fulfill her legacy.
For the next 20 years, Richard devoted himself to tribal affairs. In 1994, he returned to school to fulfill a life-long ambition to earn his college degree. He proudly received a Bachelor of Science in Business and Management from the University of Redlands in 1996.
A Large Shadow
In addition to his duties as tribal chairman, Richard serves as the Chairman of the Advisory Committee to the Office of Special Trustee for the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees the federal government’s fiduciary responsibilities to manage tribal trust funds. In 2004, he was appointed to the Native American Stewardship Committee for the prestigious Autry National Center. In addition, he has served as a member of the Bureau of Land Management’s California Desert Advisory Council, and the Native American Heritage Commission.
During his tenure, he has received countless awards, honors and commendations. Among some of the most notable was the Bureau of Land Management’s Legacy of Land Award given by the Department of Interior in 1999. He also received the Palm Springs Area Boy Scouts Distinguished Citizen of the Year in 2000, and the Stroke Recovery Center’s Man of the Year in 2003, just to name a very few.
For all of the accolades, Richard’s feet always remained firmly planted on the ground. He had a deep spiritual connection to the Indian Canyons, his cultural roots, and to the tribe’s traditions which he has nurtured and passed on. Richard was truly a giant who will join his tribe’s lineage of great spiritual and cultural leaders.
A Leader by Example
“Through his charisma he has cemented all the ties that we needed,” says his older sister Virginia. Richard was humble but a dynamic communicator. While he was a man of few words, he chose his words carefully and his language was eloquent. He also had an uncanny ability to powerfully convey volumes with just the subtlest of expressions or the smallest of gestures. Those subtle messages were often the final say.
While Palm Springs has been home to the Agua Caliente Indians for thousands of years, the tribe’s reservation is laid out in a checkerboard pattern and was formally formed in sections. On May 15, 1876, Section 14 and a portion of Section 22 (Tahquitz Canyon) were set aside by Executive Order of President Ulysses S. Grant as the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation. On September 29, 1877, other sections were added.
However, more than 50 years passed before allotment elections were approved by the Secretary of the Interior and individual Indian allotments were set aside. The Equalization Act was passed September 21, 1959 and granted the tribe certain lands for tribal use and cemeteries. To fully understand Chairman Milanovich, one has to appreciate the tribe’s long history of struggles to secure rights to their reservation. The existing 31,500-acre reservation is mostly based in Palm Springs but extends into parts of Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage and portions of unincorporated Riverside County. Richard loved the land of his people and was a fierce steward of it.
Despite the enormous amount of land, until recently, most Agua Caliente Tribal members lived in poverty. Under Richard’s leadership, the tribal developments he helped implement have ensured a more secure future for his tribal members.
His tribal family of over 400 members inspired his tremendous dedication. But he was most devoted to his children and his immediate family. The chairman has been married to his wife, Melissa, for 35 years. He has six children Tammy, Sean, Travis, Scott, Trista, and Reid. He is also survived by his sister Virginia, four grandchildren and a large extended family.
When he was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, he did not let it get in his way. He had a legacy to fulfill. Two weeks after undergoing surgery, Richard was back in tribal council chambers to attend the swearing in of the newly elected 2010 Tribal Council.
For his unprecedented tenure as tribal chairman and his enormous contributions to his tribe and to the community of Palm Springs, Richard was honored at Dinner in the Canyons in October 2011. The annual major fundraising event for the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum is held outdoors on the tribe’s stunning sacred ancestral grounds of Andreas Canyon. It was a fitting tribute and one that moved him visibly.
In a video tribute, his eldest son Sean recalled his father teaching him about the tribe’s culture and the beauty of the land. “I want to follow in your footsteps,” he added. The chairman’s work is certain to be continued by a third generation of Milanovich leadership.
The Agua Caliente Tribe has a beautifully poignant proverb that reflects a universal truism:
Through you, my ancient people, I am.
Richard Milanovich lived by those words and has now joined the ancient people whose beautiful spirits will continue to inspire the generations to follow. He has left his imprint on our hearts.
Through him, we are.