Ray Patencio, a tribal elder who led the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians through a time of dramatic change in the Coachella Valley, died Thursday night, the eve of his 61st birthday. The tribal chairman from 1972 to 1981 and gaming commission chairman since 1995, Patencio died at his Palm Springs home after an illness, tribal spokeswoman Nancy Conrad said. A cause of death was not announced.
"He was an incredible leader," tribal Chairman Richard M. Milanovich said in a statement. "His whole life was one of service to the community and to the tribe."
First elected to the tribal council at age 21, Patencio became an advocate for sovereignty. He fought for the tribe's right to freely build on its land, paving the way for commercial and residential real estate development -- including lucrative casinos.
"We had to develop sophistication," Patencio said in a 2002 interview with The Times. "We had to learn how to protect ourselves. Even now, you can't sit back. You have to constantly be aware of litigation in Congress, legislation and political attitudes -- not just what affects us, but all tribes of the Indian nation."
In the 19th century, partly to allow for construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad, Congress parceled out one-square-mile plots of desert land, one to the railroad, the next to the Indians, creating a checkerboard pattern of ownership across the Coachella Valley.
Although the Agua Caliente owned more than 30,000 acres of land on their reservation, federal regulations severely restricted its development.
Two key federal rulings in the mid-1970s changed everything.
After the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the sovereignty of the Santa Rosa Indians in 1975, the Agua Caliente challenged zoning and development limits imposed by the city of Palm Springs.
Two years later, the Department of the Interior declared the tribe exempt from civic regulations. At that time the tribe's holdings of about 4,500 acres within city limits -- including 1,750 acres of unimproved land -- were valued at $100 million.
With Patencio leading talks to improve relations with the city, the tribe set up its own planning commission and began building hotels, a bank and other commercial projects.
Patencio became chairman of the tribe's gaming commission in 1995, the year it opened its first casino. Under a compact with the state, the Agua Caliente tribe oversees the Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs and the Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage.
Ray Leonard Patencio was born in Palm Springs on Feb. 9, 1946, the son of the tribe's last ceremonial singer.
"As a child, I would go with my father and sit and listen to him sing," Patencio said in 2002. "But I didn't speak the language, so it meant nothing to me. I'd rather have been going to a movie or playing outside on the street with the other kids."
He attended the College of the Desert in Palm Desert about the time he became active in tribal leadership.
And he made a run at city politics in 1988 as one of seven candidates for mayor in a race won by Sonny Bono.
In the late 1980s, after the tribe had established its fiscal and legal status, Patencio focused on its cultural legacy.
He became a regular speaker at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in downtown Palm Springs, passing on stories about the tribe's history and culture, and served on the board of directors.
And around the corner from the museum is Patencio's star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars; it was unveiled last March on the site of his boyhood home.
His survivors include his wife, Mary Kay, and four children from a previous marriage. Services are pending.