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January 15, 2016

Meet Native America: Jeff L. Grubbe, Tribal Chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians

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 people today. —Dennis Zotigh

Chairman Jeff Grubbe
Tribal Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

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 clearing 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. 

Chairman Grubbe 2
Chairman Grubbe. August 2014, Palm Springs, California.

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.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe? 

We have approximately 480 enrolled members.

What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe? 

Our enrollment requirements include that the applicant must be one-eighth degree of Indian blood and the issue of a legal marriage. 

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers? 

Like many other tribal nations, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is working on recovering our language and teaching it to others through language classes by our Cultural Preservation Committee. 

What economic enterprises does your tribe own? 

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians owns and/or operates the Spa Resort Casino in downtown Palm Springs; the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa and The Show in Rancho Mirage; and the Indian Canyons Golf Resort and Tahquitz Canyon and Indian Canyons recreational areas. In addition we manage land leases throughout the reservation. 

Chairman Grubbe

Chairman Grubbe standing at the entrance to the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa. May 2014, Rancho Mirage, California. 

What annual events does your tribe sponsor? 

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians provides hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to support many community and nonprofit programs and events. In addition we host an annual Celebrity–Charity Golf Tournament that benefits five charities each year, as well as the annual Richard M. Milanovich Legacy Hike, which benefits an educational scholarship within the Native American Political Leadership Program at George Washington University.

We also support the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum and the events they put on every year, including the Dinner in the Canyons, the Native American Film Festival, and the Singing of the Birds. These are all great events that share not only our culture, but also cultures and traditions from throughout Indian Country.

What other attractions are available for visitors on your land? 

The most unique are Tahquitz Canyon and the Indian Canyons. The tribe is steward to more than 60 miles of hiking and walking trails in the beautiful Southern California desert. The canyons include the world’s first and second largest groves of Washingtonia filifera palm trees, the only palm tree native to California’s desert. Tahquitz Canyon features a 60-foot waterfall. These canyons are also our ancestral homes. 

How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation? 

We have government-to-government relationships with local, state, and U.S. federal government. We have important and close relationships with decision-makers at all levels. 

What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribe? 

The future success of our tribe and our tribal members is with our youth. We are making decisions and investments now to provide opportunities so that our young people can grow up and become strong, proud, educated, and successful adults. 

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

I am honored to a part of this project. You have interviewed many great leaders, many of whom I know and work with today. We have a long, proud history in this country, and we have overcome so many injustices to get where we are today. Although we have come very far the last 10 to 15 years, we have so much farther to go. I look forward to those challenges and to working with our past, present, and future leaders in Indian Country. Alowah (thank you), and God bless. 

Thank you. 

Thank you. 

Photos courtesy of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, used with permission.

To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below. Meet-native-america
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission. 


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