Oral Histories

Interview of Joe Benitez

Member of the Cahuilla tribe. Chair of the Cabezon Band Tribal Council.
The American Indian Presence in Southern California: Those Who Were Already Here
American Indian History
Biographical Note:
Member of the Cahuilla tribe. Chair of the Cabezon Band Tribal Council.
Coates, Julia
Benitez, Joe
Persons Present:
Benitez and Coates.
Place Conducted:
Tribal offices of the Cabezon Band in Indio, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Julia Coates; interviewer, UCLA Center for Oral History Research; Ph.D., American studies, University of New Mexico; assistant professor, Native American studies, University of California, Davis; and visiting professor, College of Liberal Arts, Northeastern State University, Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Citizen of the Cherokee Nation and served on its tribal council. Coates did extensive interviewing of Cherokee Nation citizens as part of her dissertation and post-doctoral research. The interviewer prepared for the interview by speaking at length with Clifford Trafzer of University of California, Riverside and by reading Trafzer's The People of San Manuel.
Processing of Interview:
The transcript is a verbatim transcription of the recording. It was transcribed by a professional transcribing agency using a list of proper names and specialized terminology supplied by the interviewer. Benitez was then given an opportunity to review the transcript but made no corrections or additions.
3.5 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Series Statement:
The interviews in the series the American Indian Presence in Southern California: Those Who Were Already Here survey the experiences of unrecognized tribes at one extreme and gaming tribes at the other. Southern California is the homeland of numerous tribal peoples indigenous to the region. Following the genocidal state policies of the 1800s, which left less than 20,000 California Natives still living (from an original population of more than 300,000 previous to European contact), the peoples of California tribes have been largely invisible to the outside world for much of the twentieth century. The advent of tribal gaming has put California tribes on the radar once again, but the century’s policies also resulted in a loss of federal recognition for still others, including those indigenous to Los Angeles County.
Background and Chemehuevi heritage--Brief biography--Experience at St. Boniface Catholic Boarding School--Father’s work and life in the Coachella Valley--Lack of amenities in childhood home--Primary and secondary school education--An introduction to Benitez's involvement with the tribal council--Ancestry--The story behind “Willie Boy” and the Benitez family--Mother’s Cabezon tribal recognition--The initial split between Twentynine Palms and the Cabezons--Benitez's uncles and the bird singers tradition--Learning English as a native Chemehuevi speaker--More on the Chemehuevi language--Benitez's gradual adoption of the American cultural mainstream--First job at a store on the reservation--How Benitez met his second wife--A brief description of “Uptown” Indio--Relatives and cousins--Other families on the reservation--How some African American families came to settle on the reservation during the 1940s--Discrimination, land rights, and building codes--The history of Noble’s Ranch--Childhood playmates--Community awareness of the local reservation--The growth of tribal gaming in the 1970s and '80s--Housing development on the reservation in the ‘90s--The history of the tribal council meetings--Generational differences in reservation childcare--Benitez's fascination with the peon games--Reservation festival activities--Wiiwish and other types of meals prepared for festivals--Wiiwish versus kanuche--A combination of hunter-gatherer, subsistence, and consumer lifestyles--More on Benitez's childhood household and its lack of amenities--Keeping the house warm during the winter--Teaching African American peers how to swim--Stepfather’s converted Model-A car--Benitez's biological father--Meeting his nine half-siblings in his mid-'60s--Father’s secret attachment to his son--Mother’s efforts to hide the existence of his father--The role Benitez’s stepfather played in his upbringing--The level of ethnic diversity in the schools he attended--Other American Indians in the school system--A school visit from Iron Eyes Cody--Interest in playing sports--High school football--Standing up against discrimination aimed at black peers--On moving back to the reservation--Difficulties in Benitez's early childhood education.
Passing psychology as a barrier to graduating from college--Playing sports in college--Benitez’s skip-loading job at a feedlot--First marriage--Conscription during wartimes--First wife’s illness and the birth of first child, Marc--More on returning to reservation life--Improvements in reservation living conditions for Benitez and Marc--Marc’s education and vocational goals--Benitez's relationship with Marc--His second marriage--Renting reservation property to non-Indians--Renting to a Navajo/Sioux family--Running a sweat lodge on the reservation property--On overcoming alcohol dependency--Dealing with substance abuse in the family--Time in the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) program--Gaining spirituality through the “Red Road” sweat lodge community--Religious background growing up--Differences between the Red Road and conventional Christianity--The story of how Benitez met and eventually married Diana--Daughter’s “Indian name”--Elected chairman of the tribal council--Benitez’s work to improve the organizational culture of the tribal council--Council's first attempts at securing and increasing tribal revenue sources--Dealing with the legal issues involved in developing a reservation gaming industry--California v. Cabazon Band--More on the 1960 split between Cabezon and Twentynine Palms lands--The more recent reconciliation of the two tribes--The bird singer tradition and the mid-1980s cultural revival of Native American heritage--Benitez's mother’s natural intelligence--Her lack of education and low degree of literacy--The growth of annual powwows--The changing relationship between the reservation and the tribe--County supervisors and other outside attempts to intervene in tribal policy--The tribal political infrastructure--Enfranchisement through the Indian gaming industry--Outside investment in Indian gaming--The politics of Indian casinos at the state level--The collective benefits of increased revenue for the tribe--Challenges in conducting Native American genealogical research.