History of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians

The Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians are a Chemehuevi people who are a federally recognized tribe whose reservation is located near the city of Twentynine Palms and near the city of Coachella. California. They are Chemehuevi people who inhabited the desert area of the Oasis of Mara (Mar’rah) in the vicinity of today’s Joshua Tree National Park. Small groups of Chemehuevi lived throughout the desert between the Colorado River and Twentynine Palms and had come to the Oasis many times before 1870 and lived with the Serrano Indians, who had inhabited the area for many hundreds of years, as had other Indian groups. In the 1870s another small group of Chemehuevis made up of Maria and William Mike, Jim Mike and his wife and their children came to the Oasis and lived there together with the Pine and Ramirez family until the early 1900s. The Mike family which constitutes the membership of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band, still maintains a special relationship with the Oasis today.

For some years, it was possible for the Chemehuevis at Mara to live in something close to their traditional way at Twenty-nine Palms, located as it was in a relatively isolated part of the desert. The water at the oasis permitted them to garden, and the surrounding area provided plant foods to gather and good hunting. As non-Indians moved into the area with their livestock, the animals depleted the plant resources provided by the area, which sustained both the Indians and the animals they hunted. Moreover, the invading settlers with their guns depleted the animals the Indians depended on for meat. The Chemehuevis were eventually reduced to working for wages and buying processed foods, but they continued to practice their traditional life way and seasonal rounds. They would live part of the year at Twentynine Palms and would travel and stay another part of the year in the Indio area and Banning area for agricultural work.

The Chemehuevi received a patent in 1895, for establishment of a reservation near the Oasis and came under the jurisdiction of the Mission Indian Agency. The establishment of the reservation transferred to the Indians 160 acres of marginal farm land in return for hundreds of thousands of acres rich in mineral and other resources that had been theirs in traditional times and were stolen by individual Americans with government concurrence. The land set aside for the reservation, however, was not at the Oasis but a ways to the south. It contained no water and the people were never able to live there. Even though it had probably become awkward for them to exercise their traditional custom of visiting places in what is now Joshua Tree National Park when it was time to harvest valued resources, their right to do so was probably implicit in the situation until the reservation was set aside. Today the Twenty-Nine Palms Band has established a working relationship with Joshua Tree National Park and with the Smith family at the Twenty-Nine Palms motel which is at the site of the village oasis.

In 1908, most of the people who then remained at Twenty-nine Palms moved to Morongo Reservation in the wake of the Office of Indian Affairs' determination that all Indian children should go to school. In this instance, they were forcibly enrolled at St. Boniface in Banning. After Jim and Matilda Pine, a number of whose children were buried in the cemetery there, remained at Twenty-nine Palms. In 1909 after the leader of the Mike family was killed by Willie Boy, the remaining Chemehuevi left Twentynine Palms and moved to Indio or Banning.

Although the members of the band for whom the Twenty-nine Palms reservation was set aside retained their identity as a group separate from the Chemehuevi who were members of the Chemehuevi reservation on the Colorado River and those on various reservations in the Coachella Valley, they kept in touch with their fellow Chemehuevis. By the late 20th century, they had numerous family ties with other southern California Indians. In 1910, the government issued a trust patent for 640 acres jointly to the Cabazon and Twenty-nine Palms Bands of Mission Indians, and encouraged the Twentynine Palms Chemehuevi to live at Cabazon at Indio rather than out in the desert at Twentynine Palms, which was so distant from other reservations that the OIA felt it too far for Indian agents to travel. This section was added to the already-existing Cabazon Reservation (Trafzer et al. 1997:94-95). When, in the course of time, conflict arose between the Chemehuevis and Cahuillas on the reservation, most of the Chemehuevis left, some of them returning, at least for a time, to the Twenty-nine Palms Reservation. Others "moved to live with the Paiutes in Nevada, Chemehuevis near Parker, Arizona, the Luisenos and Cahuillas at Soboba Reservation, the Agua Caliente Reservation in Palm Springs, or one of the other reservations in Southern California." Some went to live in the desert towns of the Coachella Valley or elsewhere (1997:95-96). The only Chemehuevi family who remained at the Cabazon Reservation was that of Susie Mike Benitez (1997:96).

Four hundred acres of the 640 acres held jointly by the two bands was allotted to eight Desert Cahuilla tribal members and two Chemehuevi tribal members (1997:96), a division of the allotted acres that gave four times as much land to the Cahuilla members as to Chemehuevi members. In the early 1970s, the Chemehuevi, feeling that they had never been full parties in the reservation, began to press for a larger share of the section. Because the Cabazon Tribal Council was at the time investigating the possibility of economic development, and especially Indian gaming, it was likely considered advisable to clear title to their land by bringing to an end the joint tenancy of the 240 remaining acres of the section. The Council, after due deliberation, decided that the 240 acres of the section held in joint tenancy that had not been allotted should go to the Twenty-nine Palms Band in view of the fact that members of that band had received less than the Chemehuevi share of the allotted 400 acres. The Tribe thereupon petitioned Congress that Section 30 be divided between the Cabazon Reservation and the Twenty-nine Palms Reservation, with the latter receiving the 240 acres plus cash and interest. Congress under the terms of Public Law 94-271 authorized the division in 1976. This division of a reservation between two groups has been extremely rare in the history of this country. Now the Twenty-nine Palms Band had a land base in the Coachella Valley to which they had clear title, (Trafzer et al. 1997:98-101).

In the 1980s, the members of the Band decided to start a tribally owned business on their land. Band members who had business experience elsewhere returned to the Coachella Valley and made a considerable contribution to the project. In January, 1995, taking advantage of the fact that highway rights-of-way passed through the land they owned, they opened the Spotlight 29 Casino on it. In addition to gaming, it offers its patrons popular music and other entertainment, as well as Native American singing and dancing. They have also opened a first class restaurant for their patrons (1997:108-114).