Stadium 2, Indian Wells. Photo by Courtney Szto.

*Cross posted on The Rabbit Hole*

I recently visited Palm Springs/Indian Wells, California to see the BNP Paribas Open. For non-tennis aficionados the BNP Paribas Open (more commonly referred to simply as Indian Wells) has been unofficially titled the “Fifth Grand Slam” (AKA major tournament) of the professional tennis circuit because of it’s prestige as a title, the fact that both the men’s and women’s tours play concurrently, and the amenities available to the players and fans.  In doing my trip planning I stumbled upon some of the tourist appropriate history of Palm Springs:

More than 2,000 years ago, Palm Springs’ first residents were the ancestors of today’s Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. One of the many Cahuilla bans, the Agua Caliente existed as peaceful hunters and gatherers, living off the land, and adapting to the extremes of desert summers and mountain winters…The Cahuilla tribe first encountered non-Indians in 1774, as Juan Bautista de Anza’s expedition traveled through the area. In 1853, a government survey party mapped Palm Springs and its natural hot springs mineral pool – now the site of the Spa Resort Casino – and established the first wagon route through the San Gorgonio Pass.  The Cahuilla culture was decimated with the 1863 smallpox epidemic that killed thousands.

In 1877 as an incentive to complete a railroad to the Pacific, the U.S. government gave Southern Pacific Railroad title to the odd-numbered parcels of land for ten miles on either side of the tracks running through the Southern California desert around Palm Springs…

The even-numbered parcels of land were given to the Agua Caliente, yet federal law prohibited them from leasing or selling the land to derive income from it. (Visit Palm Springs)

Naturally, tourist sites aren’t in the business of rehashing North American colonization on their websites, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know the history that we are travelling into and what made our leisure activities possible.  Because, in short form, the colonization/dispossession/genocide of California’s Indigenous Cahuilla people is what made today’s tourist haven, and tennis’ “fifth Grand Slam” possible.  Or, as certain historical accounts will refer to it, “the pacification of Native Americans” is what made the resort town of Palm Springs possible.

In 1853, W.P. Blade, a Smithsonian Institution geologist, reported that the Cahuilla community was a thriving Indian village, but a decade later, all would change when gold was discovered on the Colorado River.

According to Theodor Gordon’s PhD thesis on tribal sovereignty in Southern California, the local Indigenous population went from 150,000 in 1845 to less than 30,000 in 1870. “The annexation of the Southwest led to novel federal approaches to the so-called “Indian problem,” including the creation of the reservation system, which was first attempted in California” but the original reservation system was not implemented. Moreover, the parcelling of land mentioned above was not an expression of “sharing is caring” for equitable land distribution, rather it was meant to disconnect the Cahuilla from their territory.  The word “give” is a misnomer because the same statement could just as easily be written as:

The odd-numbered parcels of land on either side of the tracks running through the Southern California desert around Palm Springs were stolen from the Cahuilla people in order to facilitate the development of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

They were also prohibited from making profit from this “given” land until the Equalization Law was signed in 1959.

Indian Wells Tennis Garden sits amidst a rugged natural landscape. Photo by Courtney Szto.

Once America annexed Alta California the rights of the Cahuilla were greatly restricted. They became civilians of the United States but not citizens; thus, they were denied the franchise and the ability to testify in court.  Many of the Cahuilla people were forced into indentured servitude. At the time, California was only concerned with prohibiting black slavery, which meant that systemic oppression of the Indigneous people was fair game.  “The newly formed California government legalized indentured servitude for the indigenous population, and these policies quickly expanded to promote practices of forced child labour and sexual exploitation that can only be properly described as slavery” (Gordon, 2013).  Unemployed Indigenous people were also subject to arrest.

The Sacramento Standard, in 1860, argued for the expansion of the Indian apprenticeship system; they argued that in order to fix California’s “Indian problem,” “the most human disposition that could be made of them, is, probably to reduce them to a mild system of servitude. Call them slaves, coolies or apprentices – it is all the same; supply them with Christian masters and make them Christian servants” (cited from Rawls, 1984, p.90).

Moreover, American settlers used to refer to the Indigenous people as “bucks.  Just as male deer are called bucks and are prized hunting game, so too were the Indigenous people (Gordon, 2013).

As a result, we need to acknowledge that despite the BNP Paribas Open taking place on Indigenous land in a city called “Indian Wells,” there have been very few Native American tennis players who have competed at the professional level (Dawn Allen and D’Wayne Begay perhaps being two of the more prominent names). The North American Indian Tennis Association (NAITA) hosts an annual tournament and seeks to expose Indigenous groups to the game but the fact that there were no notable self-identified Native American tennis players competing at the BNP Paribas Open is evidence of the lingering repercussions of “the pacification of Native Americans.”

Courtney Szto is a PhD Candidate in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.  Her doctoral research explores the intersections of race, hockey, and citizenship in Canada.  She is the Assistant Editor of Hockey in Society and writes for her own blog The Rabbit Hole. Learn more about Courtney here and follow her on Twitter @courtneyszto.