In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Me yah whae (hello), I am Tribal Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.
Where is your tribal community located?
The Agua Caliente Indian Reservation is located in the Coachella Valley, in Southern California, and crosses the municipal boundaries of Palms Springs, Rancho Mirage, and Cathedral City, as well as portions of unincorporated Riverside County.
Where is your tribe originally from?
We have deep roots here. The Cahuilla name for the area was originally Sec-he (boiling water) for the nearby hot spring. The Spanish who arrived named it Agua Caliente (hot water). Then came the name Palm Springs, in reference to both the native Washingtonia filifiera palm tree and the Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
A significant turning point in the tribe’s history was when the Agua Caliente Band adopted its first Constitution and By-Laws in the mid 1950s. The first all-woman tribal council in the United States was formed in 1954. This group, and subsequent councils, successfully opposed federal termination efforts, obtaining the first long-term land lease legislation in the United States for Indian lands and cleared the way for tribal land development across the country.
How is your tribal government set up?
The Tribal Council is the governing body that sets policy, makes laws and implements the direction voted upon by tribal membership. The structure of the Tribal Council is composed of five positions and four proxy members. The council includes a chairman, vice chairman, secretary–treasurer and two council members.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
How often are elected leaders chosen?
Tribal elections are held each year. Officers serve two-year terms, and council members serve one-year terms.
How often does your tribal council meet?
We meet weekly, with some exceptions throughout the year.
What responsibilities do you have as tribal chairman?
My responsibility as chairman is to ensure that the decisions we make today improve the lives of our future generations. That’s why we are investing in educational opportunities for our tribal members, economic development for the future vitality of our tribe, and community organizations that provide much-needed services in and around our community.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?
I had the opportunity to grow up in and around tribal government. My grandfather, Lawrence Pierce, served on the Tribal Council, so I was able to learn from him. I also became interested in serving my tribe at an early age.
Upon completion of college, in 1999 I entered the Agua Caliente Resort and Spa Tribal Intern Program, where I worked in the casino as a table games shift manager. My experience there led me to my involvement in other tribal service, including the Agua Caliente Child Development Committee, the Agua Caliente Election Board, the Gaming Commission, and the Tribal Building Committee. I later joined the Agua Caliente Development Authority. I was elected to Tribal Council in 2006 and elected chairman of the Tribal Council in 2012.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
An important mentor has been former Tribal Chairman Richard M. Milanovich. He shared with me over many years how to lead with diplomacy and grace. My grandfather also played an important role of inspiration, but he passed away while I was in high school. My mother also inspired me through her work on the board of the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum and on our Enrollment Committee.
To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.