Cahuilla Tribe ousts homeless to reopen Tahquitz Canyon: Palm

Tom Boland (
Tue, 17 Feb 1998 17:21:33 -0800 (PST)

FWd from
Feb 16, 1998  By Diana Marcum, Special to The LA Times - CALIFORNIA ALBUM


Barred to the public since 1969, desert oasis near Palm Springs will once
again welcome visitors. But first, homeless are being ousted and graffiti

PALM SPRINGS--The green golf courses and color-coordinated flower beds of
this resort town appear after miles of rocks and sand, but the true desert
oases are beyond the reach of drip irrigation, tucked into five canyons
sheltering waterfalls and icy streams. Other canyons on the reservation of
the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians are open to the public, and
their well-groomed trails are popular tourist draws. But Tahquitz Canyon is

The tribe closed Tahquitz in 1969 because visitors were trampling wild
grapevines, polluting its pools and venturing onto steep cliffs, where some
hikers were injured. Another reason, tribal leaders say, was because the
Cahuilla believe Tahquitz Canyon to be a sacred and dangerous place--home
to Tah-kwish, the spirit of a powerful medicine man who turned on his

Now, for the first time in almost three decades, the "No Trespassing" signs
are coming down. In January, the tribe began a cleanup effort costing more
than $100,000 to remove trash, erase graffiti and roust the homeless who
have set up camp in the canyon, just a few blocks from this city's main
drag. The next steps before the canyon reopens with restricted access,
perhaps this year, are fencing, security guards, improved trails and a
museum annex.

"The tribe was in a Catch-22," said Richard Milanovich, tribal chairman.
"If we didn't do anything, this beautiful, magical place would continue to
be a dumping ground for individuals who didn't care what they were doing.
But, at the same time, we have respect for our culture. "We had to ask our
ancestors for forgiveness in opening the canyon in order to protect it for
the future."

Milanovich knows the canyon well. As a boy, he and his friends hiked,
fished and swam here, always, he recalls, "with the spirit of Tah-kwish
very paramount on our minds. We were always wondering, 'Is anything going
to happen?' "We had the respect necessary to ensure our safety. We didn't
desecrate. We picked up our garbage. We didn't put our names on rocks," he
said. "Now we'll trust the public to show Tahquitz respect."

On a recent morning, Benjamin Callaway was sound asleep under a giant rock,
where he said he has lived for seven years, when the canyon cleanup crew
found him. The workers handed Callaway large trash bags to pack up his
shredded blankets and papers.

"Do you have your personal belongings?" foreman Ron De Luna asked a still
groggy Callaway. "Good. Then, please, move it on out."

Callaway soon headed off to downtown, a brown plastic bag of old clothes
slung over his shoulder. Most days, he is a familiar fixture outside a
nearby drugstore, where he stops passersby and asks for change. Others who
lived in the canyons held day jobs and built extensive shelters in rock
caves, even lugging in bags of cement for home improvements.

When canyon worker Ralph Kato is asked how many people were living in the
canyons, he answers not with a number, but by reeling off a half-dozen
first names: "Bud, Mel, Tania . . ." Tania cried," Kato said. "She said she
was pregnant. But at least they had friends in town. The others, I asked
them if there was a shelter where they could go and they said the closest
one was in Indio. . . .

"It's sad, but they're polite about leaving. They understand they don't
belong here."

The tribe decided to close the canyon in spring 1969 after a concert by the
rock group Canned Heat. After the show, more than 1,000 young people headed
to the canyon for days of partying, leaving mountains of trash behind.

For years afterward, Palm Springs' raucous spring break revelers would
spill into the canyon. "Every Easter week we'd kick out 300 people, some
with weapons and drugs," said Chris Maxwell, coordinator for Palm Springs'
Mounted Search and Rescue team.

Graffiti proliferated and the problems grew worse. There were assaults, and
a man was knifed to death there in 1994, Maxwell said. Each year, the
search team is called on for 10 to 12 rescues, several times to retrieve a
body after a hiker has fallen from the cliffs.

Though closed, the canyon remained easily accessible because it is just
three blocks from South Palm Canyon Drive, the town's main thoroughfare.
The canyon's first waterfall, where white foam crashes 70 feet into a
serene pool surrounded by sycamore trees, is a 20-minute hike from the
entrance. From there, the trails quickly grow steep and dangerous, leading
to higher, more remote canyons.

* * *

Maxwell said his yearly appearances before the Tribal Council grew
redundant. "Every year they would ask, 'What can we do?' And every year I
would say, 'Don't look. Don't see.' The general gist was there wasn't an
effective way to stop it," he said. "But over a period of years I began to
feel the only way was to go all the way. Clean it up. Make it a pay system.
Let the influx of regular people wash out the bad element."

In less than a month, crews have cleared out truckloads of trash and
evicted the squatters. The challenge of removing graffiti remains. There is
no way to get a vehicle to the falls, so workers plan to hike in with
generators and high-pressure water equipment to blast paint from rocks.
Then they'll install a 6-foot-high fence around the mouth of the canyon.

The 1 1/2-mile lower canyon will be the only area opened to the public. The
tribe hopes the fence at the canyon's entrance will keep visitors from the
steeper, more dangerous trails. Guards also will patrol to discourage

Admission will be $6, the same fee the tribe charges visitors to the trails
of Indian Canyons, a touted tourist attraction consisting of three canyons
on the south end of the city. The tribe's fifth canyon, Chico Canyon, is
visible from the aerial tram ride on the north side of Palm Springs.

* * *

Linda Vivian, a longtime Palm Springs resident, said she relishes the
thought of legally visiting a place she hasn't seen in 30 years, but she
views the opening of Tahquitz with mixed emotions.
"I don't know if I want them to open it, because I appreciate what the
canyon means to the tribe," she said. "But I understand it's the only way
they can reclaim it.

"I will go back. It's an amazing place to sit and meditate and dream of
what the valley was like when the Indians were the only ones here."

Milanovich hopes cleaning up the canyon will be a step in his tribe's
efforts to reclaim its heritage. In the early 1950s, the tribe's elders
burned their ceremonial house and all the tribe's religious artifacts
because they believed that the tribe had intermingled to the point that its
culture was being desecrated and there was no one left to carry on its

"I grew up with pains in my heart, not having the tutelage of being
Cahuilla," Milanovich said. "But who we were never left, and now my
generation is old enough to have the opportunity to speak. Cleaning up
Tahquitz is a way to say, 'Yes, this is ours' and instill a sense of

The 340-member tribe, which has vast real estate holdings in Palm Springs
and runs a local casino, has faced thorny decisions as members wrestle with
financial disputes and varying visions of the tribe's direction.

"But with Tahquitz the same thing was on everyone's lips: It's not possible
in today's world to keep this special place for ourselves," Milanovich
said. "We made a unanimous decision to open the canyon so everyone can
better understand how our ancestors lived."


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