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25 May 2015

Before the Tribe Found Its Power: The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum Documents the Life of Poor Palm Springs Residents in 'Section 14'

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Members of the Agua Caliente tribe helped build the railroad through the Coachella Valley. Members of the Agua Caliente tribe helped build the railroad through the Coachella Valley.

“The minority residents of Section 14 … homes were destroyed by a city-engineered holocaust,” wrote Loren Miller Jr. in a 1968 report to the state attorney general.

Bordered by Alejo and Ramon roads, Indian Canyon Drive and Sunrise Way, Section 14 is one square mile. Today, it’s one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in all of the Coachella Valley.

The current exhibit at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, Section 14: The Other Palm Springs, offers a compelling account of how one Native American tribe produced its future despite its past. The sequencing of blown-up maps and newspaper clippings (most with embedded pictures) creates a narrative. Quotes from government officials provide greater context. However, the depth and raw accounting of the Agua Caliente’s existence comes from period pictures, quotes from tribal members and council leaders’ oral histories.

Featuring a series of oversized maps, the front room chronicles the origins of Section 14. The U.S. government created a grid consisting of townships that were further reduced to square-mile pieces of land. After the railroad purchased what it wanted and/or needed, the remaining sections were numbered. The government retained all of the odd-numbered plots, and leased most of the even-numbered parcels in the Palm Springs area, including Section 14, to the tribe.

There is a clear change in temperament between the two spaces that make up the exhibit. The opening room provides the needed fact-based overview of how Section 14 came to be; the maps and charts inform without being overly academic. However, it is the second room that offers insights into the human experience of the Agua Caliente who lived in Section 14.

This part of the exhibit focuses upon the journey of these Native Americans during a period roughly beginning in the 1930s. Some images, likely taken before 1930, show the Agua Caliente working to create the railroad. However, the real narrative is about the Agua Caliente’s self-determination and a focus upon their future. Their efforts produced a radical evolution from subsistence living to becoming an economic and social force within the Coachella Valley—particularly in Palm Springs.

Palm Springs once offered, as Dickens might say, “A Tale of Two Cities,” Celebrities and the wealthy, frequent visitors to the desert, employed the Native Americans to take care of their estates. In sharp contrast, Section 14 could best be described as a dilapidated shantytown.

The east side of Section 14 was pretty much desolate, save a stable and a couple of other structures. While there were some shops along Indian Canyon, the balance of the west side was taken up by housing—mainly shacks constructed from wood, tar paper and other materials, as well as trailer parks. Indoor plumbing, garbage pickup and running water were essentially nonexistent.

The adults, who understood the inadequacies of their living conditions, hid the reality from their children. One oral historian, Renona Peddington, recalls her childhood in Section 14 as “safe” and “free.” Additionally, she recalls that “no doors were locked,” and that during the summer, we “could sleep outside and look at the stars.”

A series of newspaper articles and government reports documents actions and events that redefined Section 14. First, in about 1956, the Agua Caliente elected five women who lived in Section 14 to be their tribal leaders. Vyola Ollinger, Eileen Miguel, Gloria Gillette, LaVerne Saubel and Elizabeth Monk today would be called activists. These women also pushed for innovation. For example, they commissioned a master plan for the section and presented it to the Palm Springs government; however, the local government never signed off.

A second force that led to the rethinking of Section 14 was a growing number of dissatisfied residents and visitors. The group, appalled by the “blighted” area in the center of the city, pushed for radical change. Especially loud were people who did business in the rapidly growing tourism industry.

Most likely responding more to the tourism-industry protests than the activist tribal council, the Palm Springs city government began to push for the demolition of Section 14. Through a series of dubious maneuvers, the city tried to take possession of the property by having the lease revoked. When those efforts failed, the city refused to provide utilities, like power and water. Concurrently, city officials required Section 14 residents to bring their homes up to code. Finally, the city moved to raze the entire square mile. A law requiring residents to receive at least a 30-day warning was frequently ignored: Residents would leave their homes to go to work and return to find rubble.

One realization and legal change—perhaps a bit understated in the exhibit—all but guaranteed a better future for the Agua Caliente. As Ray Patencino, an Agua Caliente oral historian, stated: “We had something that everybody else wanted. It’s called real estate.”

Another big change occurred when the Agua Caliente lobbied for and received rights to establish gambling facilities on Indian property. These rights later extended beyond the Agua Caliente to include all Native American tribes.

The exhibit shows the evolving relationship between Palm Springs and the Agua Caliente. During my first visit, it seemed that a few more images of what Section 14 looked like would have strengthened the exhibit. However, during a second visit, it became clear to me that the images were there, but integrated as collages on the exhibit’s walls.

Something easily overlooked is a group of pieces of distressed wood. They hang, almost like a wind chime or mobile, in the middle of the second room. These pieces survived the razing of the Section 14.

This is a powerful exhibit that tells the tale of a largely unknown chapter of our valley’s history.

Section 14: The Other Palm Springs is on display through Nov. 8 at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, located at 219 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. The museum’s summer hours (June through August) are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and noon to 5 p.m., Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, call 760-778-1079, or visit www.accmuseum.org.

Below: Pieces of wood from the razed homes in Section 14 hang in the exhibit.

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