PALM SPRINGS, CA. — The oldest member of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, 95-year-old Vyola J. Ortner, died Friday Feb. 10, 2017 at her Palm Springs home.
She will best be remembered in Palm Springs and throughout Indian Country as a determined Tribal leader ahead of her time and as a progressive woman who helped change the course of history for her Tribe and other Tribes across the nation. She was the Vice Chairman and Chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians Tribal Council from 1952 to early 1959.
“Leadership is about taking people to places they didn’t realize possible,” Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe said. “Vyola was passionate, engaged and ambitious in ways that ultimately made life better for our Tribal members. She set out to make a difference, and along the way, she inspired many of us to step up and do the same.”
Ms. Ortner was born in Palm Springs as Viola Juanita Hatchitt on April 1, 1921. She grew up on Section 14 in downtown Palm Springs and attended Frances Stevens School.
In her 2011 book You Can’t Eat Dirt, she describes Section 14 – now part of downtown Palm Springs, bordered by Sunrise Way, Indian Canyon Drive, Alejo Road, and Ramon Road – as a “tent city,” with rows of canvas dwellings that the Tribe offered as rentals. “They were modest but well maintained,” writes Ortner’s co-author Diana C. du Pont, confirming that Tribal land was viable, however not as much as surrounding areas that attracted the likes of Hollywood movie stars. Regardless, Tribal land would have been considered virtually worthless because government restrictions limited the land to five-year leases, which kept serious developers away. In turn, Indian landowners often lived in poverty.
In 1952, it was at the insistence of her mother, Juana Saturnino Hatchitt, that Ms. Ortner attended a Tribal Council meeting. By the time the pair returned home that night, Ms. Ortner had been elected to serve on the Tribal Council at the age of 30.
In 1954, she was elected Chairman of the Tribal Council of the first-ever all-women Tribal Council and served with fellow members LaVerne Saubel, Eileen Miguel, Flora Patencio and Elizabeth Pete Monk.
Through persistence and dedication, it was her work in these Tribal leadership positions that allowed her to guide her Tribe out of poverty and toward prosperity.
In 1955, the Tribal Council adopted the first-ever Constitution and By-Laws, a document that ratifies that the Tribal Council is the official governing body of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.
The women leaders worked to convince Congress that the Tribe had a right to long-term leases for their otherwise valueless land. The all-woman Tribal Council partially succeeded with the General Leasing Act allowing 25-year leases in 1955. In 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower finally signed the federal law to allow Indian land leases up to 99 years.
From You Can’t Eat Dirt, Ms. Ortner writes: “…We have the obligation as Tribal members to our own people and the right under the laws of this nation to determine the use of our own land and the destiny of our Tribe.”
During the 1950s, she was the executive officer of the California Indians Congress and the National Congress of American Indians.
One of Ms. Ortner’s passions was creating a strong tie between city government and Tribal government. From 1973 to 1980, she served as Chairman of the City of Palm Springs Planning Commission. In 1980, she was elected to the City of Palm Springs City Council and was the first and only Tribal member to ever serve on the Palm Springs City Council. She also served on the Tribal Building Design Committee in the 2000s.
In lieu of flowers, those wishing to express condolences may make donations to the Childhelp Merv Griffin Village in Beaumont , attention: Sheri Bogh at 14700 Manzanita Park Road, Beaumont, CA 92223.