Historical Tribal Image
1889 Historical Tribal Image

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 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 Mojave Desert between the Colorado River and the contemporary town of Twentynine Palms.  Throughout time, Chemehuevi had traveled to and through the Oasis of Mara before settling at the site in the 1860s.  Before Chemehuevi made the Oasis their permanent home, Serrano, Cahuilla, and other Indians lived in the area and used the desert landscape for hunting and gathering. For many years, the Chemehuevi lived in a traditional manner at the Oasis of Mara, which was abundant in native food. They also brought their farming skills to the Oasis, cultivating a large garden that they irrigated with water from the Oasis. They lived peacefully with the Serrano until the late nineteenth century when miners and cattlemen moved into the area.

At the Oasis of Mara, Jim Mike led the Chemehuevi group, while Jim Pine led the Serrano. The people intermarried with each other and formed important kinships.  When Jim Mike died in 1903, his brother, William Mike, became the leader of the Chemehuevi.  When Jim Mike died, he was one of the first buried at the cemetery created by the Chemehuevi and Serrano. William Mike had a large family. The decedents of Jim and William Mike make up the current membership of the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe.

Early surveys in the 1850s noted native settlements at the Oasis that should have become reservation lands. However, in 1875, the state of California filed a claim on the entire Oasis, ignoring the natural rights of Chemehuevi and Serrano to their homelands.  Shortly afterward, the state of California sold the Oasis of Mara to the Southern Pacific Railroad, all without the permission or knowledge of the Indian people.  In this way, the state government and private company took possession of the land without consent from the two tribal lineages.

While in the late nineteenth century, the Chemehuevi still practiced traditional hunting, gathering, and cultivation techniques.  However, as non-Indians moved into the area with their livestock, the native plant and animal resources that had nourished the Indian people for generations were depleted.  Invading settlers also brought rifles, guns, dynamite, and gunpowder. Over time Chemehuevi had to supplement their economy by working for wages and buying processed foods.  Still, they continued to practice their traditional way of life through seasonal rounds, but each year, resources declined due to non-Indian settlement.  Each year, they traveled more to Indio and Banning to work on farms and ranches.

In 1890, Sister Catherine Drexel provided initial funding to build the Saint Boniface Indian School in Banning, California.  While working in Banning, some of the Mike children attended school at the Catholic boarding school, and as a result, some non-Indians gave them the name Boniface.  The families of Jim and William Mike kept the Mike name, except Jeff Boniface, one of the children of Jim Mike who eventually married into the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians where the family lives today.  In 1909, Indian Agent Clara True and a small party visited the Chemehuevi and Serrano at the Oasis of Mara where a photographer took rare pictures of Maria and William Mike holding baby Dorothy Mike as well as Jim and Matilda Pine.  During True’s trip to the Oasis, she surveyed a reservation for the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribal people on their homelands along the line of palm trees.  When she attempted to file their claim for this reservation, the United States Land Office informed her that the state of California had claimed the land and sold it to the Southern Pacific Railroad. As a result, True could not file the claim, and no reservation could be established at the Chemehuevi and Serrano village at the Oasis of Mara. 

In 1891, the Chemehuevi negotiated an agreement with the Mission Indian Commission (also known as the Smiley Commission) that led to an Executive Order in 1895 that created an Indian Reservation near the Oasis of Mara, located a mile south of the Oasis in the rocky foothills on land that had no water.  The Chemehuevi and Serrano continued to live on the Oasis at their old village site.  The reservation contained 160 acres of rock and sand, land that had no water and the no one ever farmed.  The indigenous people of the Oasis of Mara came under the jurisdiction of the Mission Indian Agency, later changed to the Southern California Indian Agency.  Superintendents did not like the Chemehuevi living so far out in the Mojave Desert, and some wanted to relocate them into the Coachella Valley.  The Chemehuevi wanted to remain in the desert, as far from settlements as possible. For 10,000 years, Native Americans had hunted and gathered in the mystic desert landscape that became Joshua Tree National Park.  The Chemehuevi, Serrano, and Cahuilla regularly used the high desert of majestic boulders, canyons, and caves as part of their seasonal rounds.

However, in 1909, a tragic event led to the murder of Chemehuevi leader William Mike and the death of his daughter, Carlota.  In the aftermath of these tragedies, members of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band abandoned the Oasis of Mara and moved to another home. According to tribal elder Joe Mike Benitez, his mother Susie had told him the people agreed to move away from the Oasis because of the violent manner in which William Mike and his daughter, Carlota, had died.  The Serrano of the Oasis moved to the Mission Creek Reservation and later to the Morongo Reservation.  Led by Jim and Matilda Pine, the Serrano moved their Big House to Mission Creek with the assistance of Cahuilla friends and relatives. The Chemehuevi chose to move to the Cabazon Indian Reservation because they had a close association with the area and people of the Indio area.  For many years, Chemehuevi had worked on ranches in the eastern side of the Coachella Valley.

The Mission Indian Agency added a section of land or 640 acres through a trust patent to the Cabazon Indian Reservation in Indio to be held by the Cahuilla of the Cabazon Reservation and members of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians.  The superintendent reportedly never told the Cahuilla of Cabazon that the Chemehuevi were moving onto their reservation on that section of land to the southeast added to the Cabazon Reservation.  When Little (Lily) Mike and the band of Chemehuevi arrived to live on the Cabazon Reservation, the Cahuilla were not welcoming.  Within a short time, the Chemehuevi chose to move away.  With relatives on the Torres Martinez Reservation, some Chemehuevi first moved south to live with the Cahuilla at the Torres Martinez Reservation. Over the years, the Chemehuevi maintained a close relationship with the Cahuilla of Torres Martinez, and they kept their enrollment at the Cabazon reservation. 

Some members of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band, including Nellie Mike Morongo, moved to the Banning Pass to live on the Morongo Indian Reservation.  Most members moved into Palm Springs and took up residence on the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation.  Lily Mike, the oldest son of William Mike, became the leader of the band.  He maintained a close relationship with all the members of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band and met periodically to discuss issues of importance to the people.  Lily Mike and others were members of the powerful tribal sovereignty organization known as the Mission Indian Federation.  During the 1930s, Mike mounted an aggressive attempt to regain their homelands along the Oasis of Mara, but his efforts failed because ownership of the Oasis had transferred from the Southern Pacific Railroad to private owners.  Equally important, Lily Mike brought the members of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band together to oppose the attempt by Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier to force the people of the Cabazon Reservation to vote in favor of the becoming an IRA Tribe, that is, a tribe supporting reorganization under rules dictated by the Indian Office through the Indian Reorganization Act.  Lily Mike, the Chemehuevi, and the Cahuilla of the Cabazon Reservation voted against the IRA, and the tribal form of government remained traditional.  Chemehuevi men and women made decisions as a tribal group, democratically, just as they had long before the creation of the American Republic.

Throughout the early twentieth century, members of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians survived through work.  Some Chemehuevi still hunted and gathered for a portion of their food, but most of the people went to work to earn a living and provide food for their families.  Lily Mike worked as a carpenter, while his daughter, Jessie Mike, worked as a domestic in Palm Springs.  Other Chemehuevi men and women worked on farms and ranches.  Chemehuevi never lived from county, state, or federal subsidies, and the families emphasized hard-work, individualism, and industry.  The people continued their ancient relationship with Chemehuevi living free near Chemehuevi Valley and others living on the Colorado River Indian Reservation.  They also kept their cultural ties with the various Southern Paiute tribes of Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. Like many members of the band, Susie Mike worked in several towns and cities, making a living for her family.  In the 1940s, she decided to find a permanent place to live and asked the Cabazon Band to provide her an allotment where she could live and make a home for her family.  This allowed her son, Joe Mike Benitez, to have a stable life and attend school.  Each Chemehuevi family worked hard, sent their children to school, and encouraged each other to look to the future but hold onto their precious identity as Chemehuevi people. In this way, they survived and prospered. 

During the 1970s, the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians began planning to launch a new enterprise of economic development through high stakes bingo.   In the 1970s leadership at Cabazon approached members of the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe asking if they would consider taking control of approximately 210 acres within Section 30 on the Cabazon Reservation.  This land represented the balance of land remaining that the tribe had not allotted from the original 620 acres the government had added in 1910 to the Cabazon Reservation. As was traditional among the Chemehuevi, no one person could speak for everyone or make a decision binding the entire band regarding Cabazon’s proposition. In the democratic tradition of the people, the Chemehuevi families of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band met at various homes to discuss the proposition, especially the home of Dorothy Rogers, the youngest daughter of William and Maria Mike.  After much discussion and deep reflection, members of the band agreed by consensus to accept the offer and accept the acreage.

The Twenty-Nine Palms Band petitioned Congress to create the Twenty-Nine Palms Reservation from the 210 acres and provide federal recognition.  Both House and Senate of the United States Congress responded positively by passing Public Law 94-271, which authorized the division of the Cabazon Reservation and recognition of the trust land belonging to the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe.  In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed the legislation recognizing the land and tribe.  Since the 1890s, the tribe had reservation lands in trust immediately south of Twentynine Palms, but with the new congressional act and signature of the president, the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians had trust lands in the Coachella Valley.

Recommended Reading:  Clifford E. Trafzer, A Chemehuevi Song:  Resiliency of the Southern Paiute Tribe (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 2015).