Remembering Richard Milanovich

“Once in a generation comes a leader who demonstrates the character of true greatness—courage, humility and selflessness,” read a tribute written by Lydia Kremer. “Richard Milanovich, tribal chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, was that kind of leader.”

A great leader’s passing always prompts people to publicly remember his or her accomplishments. But when news of Milanovich’s passing came out, I had never seen so many outpourings of respects. Without a doubt, Milanovich impacted many, including all of Indian country.

National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. said: “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. … I am honored to have worked and learned from this great warrior, leader, and teacher.”

Jeff L. Grubbe, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians vice chairman, issued this statement: “[Milanovich] was one of the most well-respected tribal chairs in the entire nation. For 28 years, under his leadership and dedication, we became one of the most respected and progressive tribes in America. There was no one like Chairman Milanovich. He was a great teacher, an inspirational mentor, and most of all, a friend. … [He] was clear about cherishing the past and protecting the future. Under his leadership, our tribe developed economically, politically and culturally, and we are now in the position to make that our own promise. We pledge to him that we will continue the course that he has so well paved.”

Born in 1942, Milanovich was raised in Palm Springs, Calif., in an area known for its poverty. But his family legacy led the way for him to become the great leader he was. His mother served on the tribe’s only all-women tribal council that successfully lobbied Congress in 1957 in a landmark bill to pass tribal constitution bylaws for the first time.

Few would have guessed in his youth the influence he would soon have, starting with humble beginnings. He served in the U.S. Army for a few years, and was reported to have been a door-to-door salesman and also worked in retail.

When he found his way to tribal leadership, it took running for tribal council three times before finally being elected in 1978 with the most total votes at that time. This was really the beginning of his dedication to Indian country.

He served as tribal chairman of the Agua Caliente for nearly 30 years and would go on to make the tribe one of the most prominent in the nation, fighting for their rights, his accomplishments many.

Milanovich crafted a relationship between the tribe and the city of Palm Springs—the first of its kind involving two governmental bodies working together that many would soon model after, in addition to numerous other community and tribal projects and agreements. He also oversaw the historic land use agreements with the city of Cathedral City, the county of Riverside and the city of Rancho Mirage; the purchase of the Spa Hotel in 1992; the addition of the Spa Resort Casino in 1995; development and construction of the Agua Caliente Casino in 2001, and the opening of the new Spa Resort Casino in 2003. In addition to these achievements, he oversaw the construction and opening of the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa’s 4-diamond resort in 2008, followed by the completion of the tribe’s entertainment venue, The Show, in 2009. The revenue generated by these projects revitalized the community, allowing the tribe to develop self-sufficiency through education, cultural preservation, housing and health care programs. He was a driving force for transforming a struggling tribe into one that prospered and thrived.

But he was active on a federal level, too. Milanovich served as the chairman of the Advisory Committee to the Office of Special Trustee for the U.S. Department of the Interior, and in 2004, was appointed to the Native American Stewardship Committee for the Autry National Center. He even met with President George W. Bush and recently with President Obama, as well as governors and major leaders of industry.

Milanovich also presided over one high-profile case, that of Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, even going on to apologize to all of Indian country that the scandal happened.

But that was the kind of leader he was—caring and humble, but strong and passionate. Milanovich leaves a long legacy behind, but also a stronger Indian country.

He is survived by his wife, Melissa, six children, a sister and four grandchildren.

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