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Ray Patencio, leader in the fight for Agua Caliente sovereignty, passes

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. (AP) - Tribal elder Ray Patencio, who fought for sovereignty for the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians and led them through dramatic changes, has died. He was 60.

Patencio died Feb. 8, the eve of his 61st birthday, at his Palm Springs home after an undisclosed illness, tribal spokesman Nancy Conrad said.

''His whole life was one of service to the community and to the tribe,'' Agua Caliente Chairman Richard Milanovich said in a statement.

Patencio was 21 when first selected to the tribal council. He became an advocate for sovereignty, battling for the tribe's right to freely build on its land in a mission that led to lucrative casinos.

He was a lifelong advocate of Indian nation rights and cultural heritage.

In the 19th century, partly to allow for construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad, Congress parceled out

one-square-mile plots of desert land: one to the railroad, the next to the Indians.

It created a checkerboard pattern of Coachella Valley land ownership. Although the Agua Caliente owned more than 30,000 acres of land on their reservation, federal regulations severely restricted its development.

That changed with two federal rulings in the mid-1970s. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the tribe's sovereignty in 1975 and the Department of the Interior declared the tribe exempt from zoning and development limits imposed by the city of Palm Springs.

Patencio became chairman of the tribe's gaming commission in 1995, the year Agua Caliente opened its first casino. Under a compact with the state, the tribe oversees the Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs and the Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage.

Patencio has a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. It was unveiled 11 months ago.