The influence of Richard Milanovich can be seen and felt in many areas of Indian country. Whether someone is an advocate for tribal sovereignty, casino expansion, the environment or for the humanity of cancer or AIDS patients, Richard Milanovich would have been in his or her corner. Therefore, when Indian country loses a man whose interests and concerns were as varied and diverse as Milanovich, it is a loss that cannot truly ever be replaced.
Milanovich, 69, who served as chairman of the Palm Springs, California-based Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians for nearly 30 years, died March 11, 2012 of cancer.
His contributions include helping raise the Agua Caliente people from poverty to a political and economic power in California through gaming revenues and eventual economic diversification. Along the way, Milanovich’s administration opened the Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs in 1995 and the Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage in 2001. He was also influential, in 1999, with hammering out the details of a tribal gaming compact with the state of California under the administration of Gov. Gray Davis.
Milanovich’s other contributions include serving as chairman of the Advisory Committee to the Office of Special Trustee to the U.S. Department of the Interior; an advocate with the Desert AIDS Project; a supporter of “Hike 4 Hope” to support women’s cancer programs; and a member of the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy.
Outside of Milanovich’s family, no one would have felt the impact of Milanovich’s passing closer than the people of Agua Caliente. Jeff L. Grubbe, who is now the acting chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians Tribal Council, said, “there was no one like Chairman Milanovich. He was a great teacher, an inspirational mentor, and most of all, a friend. We were fortunate to have his experience, wise counsel and incredible foresight for so long. Chairman Milanovich strongly believed that our younger members of the tribe must understand the battles that were fought and won. Only through understanding our past can we forge a progressive future for our people and the generations to come.”
Other California tribal leaders also shared in Grubbe’s sense of loss. James Ramos, the chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, said that Milanovich “was an inspiration to all Native Americans, especially to young people as he encouraged up and coming Native leaders to prepare themselves to lead not only their own tribal nations, but to reach beyond our tribal reservations with participation and involvement at all levels.”
David Roosevelt, the chairman of the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, said that Milanovich “brought stability and progress to his people. His long-term leadership cannot be replaced. His candor and presence will be sorely missed. His experience, guidance, and relationships with friends, colleagues, and family, will be his legacy for his people for years to come. The Cahuilla nation, in its entirety, mourns the loss of one of our leaders.”
Outside of California, condolences were expressed from other tribal leaders as well. Bill John Baker, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, said that Milanovich “was a statesman, a leader, a visionary, a diplomat and, most importantly, a friend to those who had the pleasure to work with him during his 30 years as leader for his people.”
Milanovich’s passing also hits home in Washington, D.C., where the heads of federal agencies will miss his presence and experience. Larry Echo Hawk, Pawnee, the assistant secretary of Indian Affaris, expressed his condolences to Indian country as a whole.
“The news of Chairman Milanovich’s passing has deeply touched all of us here at Interior and throughout Indian country who knew him as a leader, friend or colleague,” said Echo Hawk. “He was one of the most down to earth and personable leaders that I have ever known. We honor him with our sincerest gratitude for all that he has contributed in service to his people, other tribal nations and to Indian country at large.”
One of the most personal expressions of sympathy comes from Kevin Gover, Pawnee, the director of the National Museum of the American Indian and a former assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.
“His loss is quite personal for me,” said Gover. “I’ve known Richard for a number of years, and consider him a good friend. While I was at the Interior Department in the late 1990s, Richard was someone to whom I always listened carefully. He was a vigorous advocate for the Cahuilla people and for all Native people. His advocacy was always conducted with grace, good humor, and sound reason … His respect for tradition and history was always evident and his commitment to remembering our history and protecting our traditions was deep.
“Few command admiration,” Gover concluded. “Richard is one. I admired him very much. I always looked forward to our visits, knowing I would feel better about the world just for having spent a while talking with him. I will miss him.”
Other reactions to Milanovich’s passing from around Indian country:
Ernie Stevens Jr., chairman National Indian Gaming Association
“We have lost a truly brilliant mind and a tireless warrior for all of Indian country. No one symbolized the ascendance of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians better than my friend and mentor Chairman Richard Milanovich. He was a man with a kind heart, who loved his people and led them from poverty to great success. His heartwarming leadership kindled a fire in all our hearts to serve Indian Country and protect Tribal Sovereignty. Richard was a man of the greatest integrity who will always be remembered as a leader with a strong work ethic and powerful presence, but who always remained humble and graceful to those around him. He was a dedicated and effective advocate of tribal sovereignty and self-sufficiency not only for the Agua Caliente people he served, but also for all of Indian country.
“I know we have all been touched by the legacy Richard will leave behind and he will truly be missed. I am honored to have worked and learned from this great warrior, leader, and teacher. While Indian country mourns the passing of Chairman Milanovich and celebrates his legacy, let us all remember to keep his wife Melissa and his six children close to our hearts. We will truly miss you Chairman and we will do our very best to carry on your work and your dreams."
Jefferson Keel, president National Congress of American Indians
“Richard was a personal friend, but more than that, he was a true champion for all Indian sovereignty and rights. Always true to his word and always willing to take the extra step to help others, his presence will truly be missed. On behalf of the entire NCAI organization and community, I offer our prayers and thoughts to the Milanovich family and the Agua Caliente Band.”
Jacqueline Pata, executive director National Congress of American Indians
“As a member of the board of NCAI, Chairman Milanovich shared with us his vision for a unified Indian country, united by strong coalitions and focused on the policies we needed to be engaged on. His vision for Indian country was paired with his keen business sense. As a nonprofit organization, he challenged us to become stronger than we had ever been. As a mentor he provided me with incredible insight and he will be greatly missed.”