They threw a great party at Morongo on Dec. 8. It commemorated the opening
of the tribe's $250 million new 27-story resort in their southern
California homeland, which has its inherent merit and is an Indian
sovereignty success story all its own. The "tallest building between Los
Angeles and Las Vegas" represents a significant business achievement for
the Morongo people as well as a superlative and wide-ranging economic
benefit for the region.
There are many commemorations over economic success. But this one had an
extra good feeling - flowing from a generosity not seen too often these
days. For this resilient Indian nation, the Morongo Band of Mission
Indians, which has risen from abject poverty and ignominy to the
reaffirmation of their natural talents and skills, the social and cultural
bonds of their people has improved greatly. The gathering, which on its
opening night pulled together the bulk of the Morongo membership, had a
sense of arrival - good connections, good vibrations and good expressions
were all around.
Very importantly, Santana came, Santana was around the hotel, the
restaurants, the shops - Carlos Santana - with his band of virtuoso
percussionists, guitarists, with a wonderful horn section and keyboardists
and vocalists - to launch into a serenade of spirit and love for the Indian
people as only this master musician and spiritual icon of the global
musical culture can intone.
However, before all else opening night, coming in a flowing dance of
kinetic figures up a ramp from the audience toward the stage was Morongo
Tribal Historian Ernest Siva, an elder gourd singer, who transmitted a
traditional welcoming song sung in Serrano, a beautiful vocal prayer of
greetings and thanks. The graceful elder danced up from the ranks of the
people, halfway up, and down again, slowly, stately, significantly. A short
video followed to tell the history of the people - their undying struggle
to maintain their culture, their land and their freedoms.
It was a sound presentation, artistic and informative, powerful and moving.
The event was billed as "a celebration of sovereignty" - a point that was
hard to deny. The tribe is successful and it celebrates its use of tribal
sovereignty to manifest a gaming enterprise capable of competing with Las
Vegas and other entertainment centers in the wider region. The congenial
Morongo band gets along with their neighbors and their reservation enjoys
an excellent locale, on the highway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs,
Calif. Their well-located casino and new resort empowers the range of
Morongo families whose valley and region their tribe inherited and regained
as ancestral territories. Interestingly, beyond the enterprises, the
Morongo mountain country on 38,000 acres of trial lands is a majestic,
serene area. Located within a virtual desert, nevertheless the Morongo are
blessed with a deep, pristine water reservoir and have diversified their
economic holdings to include a water bottling plant and trademark,
"Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water," among other businesses.
As they point out in their literature, Morongo enterprises contribute over
half a billion (2,400 jobs) annually to the local, "Inland Empire" economy.
Throughout California, some 200,000 people are directly or indirectly
employed from Indian gaming. Over 50 Indian casinos result in a $4 billion
Indian gaming industry in the state.
Morongo Chairman Maurice Lyons oversaw the festive gathering. An astute
tribal leader who draws strength from his humble nature and strong cultural
convictions, he received one and all with affable leisure, sustaining a
congenial mode for several festive days. Former California Gov. Gray Davis
stopped by. Jay Leno came to monologue and jumped out at the accommodating
audience, embracing Indians right and left. Nancy O'Dell (Access Hollywood)
hosted Beyonce and Destiny's Child, a huge young-generation group. And,
over two days, other celebrities came in and out, but it was on opening
night, the tribal gathering, that Indians were serenaded memorably by
Carlos Santana, and a spirit of togetherness unified all those in
First, the music, which typically and satisfyingly flowed from the fingers
of the master in his tremendous Afro-Cuban-Mexican-Indian American rock and
roll rhythm riding waves of extended jazz fusion, brought a normally
reserved gathering to their feet for unbridled dancing that solicited a
wall of heavily muscled security, some of whom were forced to dance by the
equally determined Morongo ladies.
The beginning of the best response to the unrelenting assaults on American
Indian honor by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was to see Carlos Santana come
out for the tribes; as he told Indian Country Today Columnist Steve
Newcomb, "I hope my songs are helping the nations." Santana is iconic as
Arnold is iconic - he transcends audiences and connects with his own people
just as deeply. Santana has become the ultimate bridging, multi-cultural
figure who transcends audiences and generations and who is willing to
guide, gently and persuasively, the connections between peoples, styles and
cultural perspectives. At this precise time in history, when Native peoples
are finally moving forward into economic prosperity and have the potential
to grow into powerful investment and philanthropic institutions, the
signaled alliance between tribal peoples and the multi-cultural
Latino-based world represented by Santana could and should fuel all kinds
of positive social change and social service initiatives.
It is not hard to appreciate Santana, who is a luminary in the music
industry, coming out to connect with his artistry and humanity - a
connection not lost on Morongo leadership. "We are two of a kind, dirt poor
boys who have persevered," said Chairman Maurice Lyons. "Our people are
survivors who value our independence and our sovereignty. Santana and many
Latino people have Indian roots like us; so he is strongly for Indian
While some former supporters of tribal rights have dismissed the gaming and
economic revolution as antithetical to Indian dignity, most activists have
come to see the potentials of a growing capital base fueling a revitalized
cultural and spiritual movement in Indian country. So it is that tribal
leaders like Morongo Chairman Lyons and the master musician and
humanitarian Santana would share so much in common.
Adding the refreshing notion that Indian business enterprises are rooted,
"in place," where their regional impacts will be long-term rather than
outsourced to foreign countries, strengthens the case for a growing
alliance with Latinos, the fastest growing minority in America. As a
gesture that recognized and helped to fuse this natural cultural
intersection, the Morongo Band donated $50,000 to the Milagro Foundation, a
charitable organization established by the Santana family. By partnering
with grass-roots groups the Milagro Foundation helps children and youth who
are disadvantaged and at risk due to poor health, illiteracy or lack of
educational opportunities. We applaud all those involved in these
benevolent good works that support and uplift our future generations.
Congratulations to the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and to Indian
country generally as hundreds of Indian nations make the transition into
responsible economic players, locally, and sometimes in whole regions.
Naturally, specific tribes and various consortia of tribes will have
competing and sometimes antagonistic interests. This is true in California
as it is elsewhere. Nevertheless, alliance-building that invites the
like-minded - those who can understand and better project and defend Native
peoples' needs and aspirations - is paramount. Indian nations and leaders
who can make such approaches and forge strong friendships in the broader
national and international audience are at a premium.