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The New Chiefs: His road to top was long and winding: One in an occasional series exploring the new leaders of California's Indian nations
[September 02, 2007]

The New Chiefs: His road to top was long and winding: One in an occasional series exploring the new leaders of California's Indian nations

(Sacramento Bee, The (CA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Sep. 2--Chairman Richard Milanovich, the half-Serbian Indian chief, holds court in his tribe's new corporate offices near the Palm Springs International Airport, cracking jokes and ignoring a phone that never stops ringing.

With the local classical station providing background music, Milanovich, 64, unspools the operatic saga of his long journey to head of state.

Milanovich -- who enjoys hiking the steep canyons of his ancient nation when he's not driving his 2001 Eldorado, reading Harry Potter books with his grandkids or negotiating multi-million dollar deals -- knows about traveling hard roads.

He's survived a broken home, 10 months at a ranch for troubled teens, the racism in his hometown of Palm Springs. As a boy, he ate government handouts of block cheddar cheese and ravioli from dented tins.

And he saw his culture nearly snuffed out.

For 23 years, Milanovich has served as the elected chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, once impoverished but now a 430-member tribe earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year from its casinos, and rent from some of the choicest parts of Palm Springs.

As the most powerful man in one of the most powerful Indian nations in North America, he's been a guest at the White House and dined with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in Napa. Milanovich's influence has grown as Indian gambling -- an $8 billion a year industry here -- plays an increasingly larger role in California life. California's 57 Indian casinos host a million visitors a day on Indian land, and Milanovich is adding to those numbers.

State Sen. Jim Battin, R-Palm Desert, a friend and beneficiary of contributions from Agua Caliente, calls Milanovich "an icon in Palm Springs." Others are less effusive. Los Angeles Weekly called him "Chief Greedovich." Some critics label him "King Richard."

An Army veteran with tough skin and a quick laugh, Milanovich chuckles at those descriptions and says he's driven by two things: his ability to listen and his desire to see everyone do their best, especially his people.

"The BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) is always keeping you under their thumb -- officially we're still wards of the federal government," he said. "The largesse coming from the federal government has always been so enticing and so corruptive to those who receive it. It's hard to say 'no, I don't want any more of this, I have to learn to get it on my own ... .' It's always bothered me; we should be more independent, more self-sufficient."

Self-sufficiency partly comes from engineering a new, albeit controversial compact with the state that would allow four Southern California gambling tribes to add 17,000 slot machines. They could be worth up to $1.8 billion in new revenue for the state over the next 23 years. The new slots for Milanovich's tribe are projected to increase the state's share of gambling profits from $11.9 million to $23.4 million a year.

Milanovich said he helped finalize the compact with the governor at a Napa resort. "Governor Schwarzenegger, number one, is a businessman, and what we did was a business deal. He was smoking a cigar when we reached an agreement."

Schwarzenegger said in a statement, "Chairman Milanovich has led Agua Caliente with remarkable vision."

The new compact allows Agua Caliente an additional 3,000 slot machines, enough for a third casino, giving the tribe a total of 5,000, with 1,000 each at the Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage and the Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs. The compact has been attacked as gambling run amok by opponents, including organized labor, race tracks, and other tribes.

Milanovich says the new deals are all about Indian sovereignty and self-determination -- concepts held dear by a tribe that once had its money controlled by conservators and guardians. Milanovich has resented government control since childhood.

Milanovich was born in the Soboba Indian Hospital, west of Palm Springs, to Laverne Miguel, an Agua Caliente Indian, and Steve Milanovich, a Serbian immigrant and former steelworker from Gary, Ind.

"He told his friends he was going to marry an Indian princess," Milanovich said. His dad served in the Army in World War II, returned home to find "my mother had at least one other child," Milanovich said. "So he just kept going. I really didn't meet him until I was 15."

Milanovich grew up with his mother in Palm Springs, where the tribe -- whose 31,500-acre reservation was created in 1876 -- owned every other parcel downtown in what's been called "The Golden Checkerboard." As a teenager, he felt the community resentment, which spurred him to move his struggling nation forward.

"It truly was ugly, the racism and animosity that non-Indians had against Indian people because of the landholdings," he said. City leaders tried to make the Indians sell the land.

"They were very condescending and treated us like we weren't worthy," said Milanovich. "My mother worked at the spa and several times she came home crying, and my stepfather would come in angry at the way he'd been treated that day."

Anthropologist Lowell John Bean, tribe historian, said the reservation became home to the excluded. "The 'rez' was the only place where people of color and working class whites could live because they were not allowed 'in town,' " he said. "And the Indians provided housing for them."

Bean said one conservator took more than $300,000 in "fees," while another sold an Indian's property and added it to his own estate. Riverside Press-Enterprise reporter George Ringwald exposed the scandal, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1968. Congress finally gave back to the Indians control of their money.

Agua Caliente had a long way to go to reclaim its culture, Milanovich said. "Two of the spiritual leaders (in 1951) burned the Big House, the ceremonial house, and issued an edict saying they would no longer talk about the culture or the Indian way because tribal members living in such close proximity to the white world were not paying proper respect." Milanovich said he visited other reservations and "learned a little bit about it, but we never learned about our own."

Many Indians were sent to the federal Indian school in Riverside, where they were forbidden to speak their language or practice their religion.

At 14, Milanovich was arrested with several older boys, including his cousin, for beating and robbing a U.S. Marine.

"I was not a participant, just a tag-along," he said. "After a few months in juvenile hall, he spent 10 1/2 months at Twin Pines, a tough boys ranch.

"It taught me never to get in trouble again," he said. Upon their release, other boys were picked up by a parent. Not Richard.

"Nobody was there -- that hurt," he said. "My probation officer drove me back to Palm Springs, and my mother wasn't even home."

Milanovich eventually dropped out of school, served in the Army for three years, worked in Los Angeles, married, returned to Palm Springs; his wife left, he remarried.

In Palm Springs, his mother, who had served on the tribe's all-woman council -- the first in Indian country -- fed his interest in tribal government.

He lost the first three times he ran for the council but finally claimed a seat as a proxy because one council member kept missing meetings.

Milanovich wanted to run for chairman, but was afraid his tribe wouldn't put a half-Serbian man in charge. His new wife, Melissa -- who's Swedish and German -- "told me, 'honey, it doesn't matter what your last name is, it matters what's in your heart.' "

By 1977, the tribe held only 2,400 of its original 31,500 acres "and 2,300 were up in the canyon area," said Milanovich.

Elected chairman in 1984, he helped set up the Agua Caliente Development Group to invest the tribe's money. It bought the Spa Hotel in 1993.

Agua Caliente moved slowly into gambling, opening a 210-slot casino in 1995, which became the Spa Resort in 2003. "We were one of the last ones in California," he said. The tribe opened a second casino in Rancho Mirage in 2001.

The reborn tribe helped create the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Agua Caliente also built its own museum in Palm Springs and is working on bringing back its own language. Two of Milanovich's six children sing the Cahuilla tribe bird songs. "I'm very proud they both picked it up and can speak it," he said.

Agua Caliente also gives more than $1.3 million annually to dozens of local charities and organizations, and has contributed more than $20 million to dozens of candidates and political races since 1999.

"He gets a tremendous amount of respect not only from the members of the Agua Caliente Band but the community at large," Battin said. "I've gone to these (charity) ceremonies and it's like Christmas has come to all these nonprofits -- and Richard's the one who's awarding them all.

"They have a program where they give kids shoes so they can go to school because there are tribal members who didn't have shoes," Battin said. "I don't know how many thousands of shoes they've given away."

Milanovich isn't universally beloved. Agua Caliente was criticized for hiring lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is in prison for fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. Milanovich said the tribe hired Abramoff over his objections.

Among Milanovich's critics are the United Auburn Indian Community (which operates Thunder Valley Casino) and Pala, Indian nations that oppose the new compact. Doug Elmets, spokesman for the tribes, said the new compact will allow Agua and three other big casino tribes to "blow small and medium tribes out of the water."

Milanovich also angered two smaller tribes, Los Coyotes and Big Lagoon, by opposing their attempts to establish an off-reservation casino in Barstow.

Cheryl Schmidt, director of Stand Up For California, a watchdog group that monitors Indian gambling, says Los Coyotes and Big Lagoon have followed the proper procedures to open a casino in Barstow. She leads the fight to overturn the new compact.

"Richard doesn't want the gambling traffic to continue to Las Vegas -- he wants it coming down I-10," said Schmidt.

She thinks the governor could have negotiated an even better deal -- and more casino revenue -- for the people of California. She adds that the state and federal governments have limited oversight of the revenue produced by the new slots awarded by the compact.

"We just have to say 'thank-you for the check' when it arrives. It's all about Indian sovereignty and nothing about how to protect the citizens of the state," she said.

Schmidt gives Milanovich his due: "He's very clever, businesswise." And she always calls him "Chairman Milanovich."

"He's an elected official," she said. "And he deserves respect as such."

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