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Hot Commodities

Western Union Telegram showing the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce's interest in the Hot Spring Parcel in the 1930s

The Agua Caliente Hot Spring is communally owned by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Following presidential orders in 1876 and 1877 that established the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation, the federal allotment policy divided up the Reservation into individual parcels owned by individual tribal members. Some portions of the reservation were excluded from allotment, however, so that they might benefit the tribe as a whole. The Hot Spring is one of them. This parcel of land, located in Section 14 just east of Indian Canyon Drive, is commonly referred to as the Mineral Spring Parcel.

Following construction of the first bathhouse, the Mineral Spring Parcel was rendered a valuable piece of real estate due to its popularity and income-producing potential. For much of the past 150 years, many individuals and groups have attempted to gain control of the parcel and its valuable hot spring waters.

•    Indian Agent Lawson attended an 1881 Los Angeles trial of a non-Indian arrested for “malicious mischief” who had settled on Section 15 and then tore down fences on Section 14, taking over the Hot Spring. By the time he was found guilty and forbidden to return, another such man had taken his place.

•    In 1889, former Indian Agent J. G. McCallum traveled to Washington D.C. to secure rights to the Hot Spring. In years prior, McCallum in his official capacity had approved non-Indian claims to even-numbered reservation lands on a legal technicality, despite the fact he’d been employed to protect Cahuilla interests. His efforts to secure the Hot Spring failed.

•    Following the lapse of the first 3-year lease in 1892, federal agents attempted to renew the lease at a reduced yearly rental price, against the wishes of tribal leaders. Tribal captain Jose Rafael responded with a letter of protest to federal officials and by taking back the keys to the bathhouse.

•    In response to the tribe’s refusal to renew the original 1889 lease in 1892, a federal agent roused tribal leaders from their sleep in the middle of the night and forced them to sign a document approving a ten year lease renewal which now included a five acre parcel of land surrounding it. This land contained mature fruit trees and farm land vital as tribal revenue sources. Tribal leaders protested that they had been duped and placed a padlock on the bathhouse door. The lease was re-written to exclude the additional land.

•     Following seven years of tribal control of the bathhouse, the federal government took over its operation in 1909. Federal oversight continued until the 1930s. Not understanding traditional tribal modes of economic distribution and decision-making, the government felt it was resolving internal disagreements over profit usage.

•    Throughout the 1930s, the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce sought to gain control of the Mineral Spring Parcel and the Indian Canyons by means of National Monument designation. The Mineral Springs Parcel was envisioned to be an administrative headquarters for National Park administration staff. These efforts ultimately failed.

•    In 1936, tribal leaders raised access fees to the bathhouse and the Indian Canyons. Non-Indian business owners, organized through the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce, viewed this as a threat to their tourism-based livelihood. Colluding with Chamber of Commerce business owners, the federal government assumed direct control over the Reservation and its tribal enterprises, including the bathhouse, on January 1, 1937.

•    The 1959 federal program of Equalization, the re-parceling of allotments due to their varying real estate values, also threatened to remove Mineral Spring Parcel’s reserve status when the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in favor of federal termination policies, proposed to allot the parcel to individuals. Indian termination was a policy that the United States Congress implemented in the 1950s and 1960s to terminate the government's trusteeship of Indian reservations. Tribal members successfully opposed these efforts so that the parcel would continue to benefit the tribe as a whole.

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