Cal State Fullerton business alumnus and Agua Caliente tribal councilor Anthony Purnel posing at the Palm Springs Canyons

Anthony Purnel

Cal State Fullerton’s Mihaylo College of Business and Economics is widely recognized as a leader in educating today’s diverse U.S. and international young professionals. While the smallest ethnic group in the college’s student body, in the fall 2019 semester, there were 10 American Indian or Alaska native students studying at Mihaylo College.

The college graduated 41 Native Americans and Alaska natives from 2008 to 2018, some of whom returned to their communities to make an economic and societal impact on one of the most underrepresented demographics in modern America.

Among these Native American business Titan alumni is Anthony Purnel ’12 (marketing), who is one of five elected tribal council members of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians near Palm Springs, California, his home tribe.

As the legislative body of a federally recognized sovereign nation within the United States, Purnel and his fellow councilors are responsible for setting policy, making laws, conducting tribal business and maintaining sovereignty for future generations.

“As a tribe, we do everything we can to help our community,” says Purnel. “We support public service agencies, youth groups, health-care organizations, schools, libraries and more.”

The Opportunities – and Challenges – Facing Native Americans in the 21st Century

With at least 5.2 million Americans claiming native ancestry of one or more of the 573 recognized tribes (representing about 1.6% of the total U.S. population), the number of American Indians is the largest it’s been in modern times. Slightly less than a fourth of Native Americans live on reservations or other trust lands, but those who do, face the challenges of under-representation and often chronic poverty, but also the opportunities of preserving unique native cultures and languages.

“We work toward protecting our tribal citizenship and sovereign nation status. Our cultures face issues of domestic violence within our communities, alcoholism, drug abuse, and the loss of our culture and traditions,” says Purnel. “Some of the most important opportunities we face as Native Americans is the continued unifications that we have with each other. We, as nations, do whatever we can to help Native Americans in general, whether it is fighting to pass bills in the state or federal governments, or increasing exposure and awareness of native issues.”

As an example of progress, Purnel cites California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s June 2019 executive order, which apologized on behalf of the state of California for a history of “violence, maltreatment and neglect” against Native Americans in the state.

“He also vowed to clarify the historical record of the relationship of Native Americans and the state of California,” says Purnel. “This is a huge step forward for us as Native Americans in California, because it assists us as we inform the public of the true history of the Golden State and its treatment toward American Indians.”

Tribal council members at the Agua Caliente band near Palm Springs break ground on the new Agua Caliente Casino in Cathedral City in November 2019.

CSU Fullerton alumnus Anthony W. Purnel (left), tribal council member of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, breaks ground on the new Agua Caliente Casino in Cathedral City in November 2019 along with fellow tribal council members, Secretary/Treasurer Vincent Gonzales III, Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe and Vice Chairman Reid D. Milanovich. The new casino is planned to open in early 2021.

Inspired to Lead His Tribe and Preserve Their Culture

Purnel says his greatest inspiration is the protection of his culture.

“I am a member of the Kauisik Clan or the Fox Clan. Our people lived in Tahquitz Canyon, just west of downtown Palm Springs, as well as in Palm Canyon, today South Palm Springs inside the present day Indian Canyons,” says Purnel. “Our clan was also in charge of protecting the sacred hot mineral spring, by which the tribe and Palm Springs got their names. The spring is located in the heart of Downtown Palm Springs and is still active today. It was and still is a vital natural resource that is used both spiritually and medicinally for us as a people.”

Carbon dating from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has shown that the water is at least 12,000 years old, a testament to how ancient this spring is. The last time the water was at the earth’s surface, the most recent Ice Age was just concluding.

Reflecting on more than 200 years of U.S. government efforts toward cultural and national extermination of native tribes, Purnel looks with pride at the efforts his tribe and others have made to preserve their traditional values, customs and histories.

“We have done a lot to bring back some of those lost traditions, but unfortunately many of those disappeared with our ancestors,” he says. “I am a huge proponent of cultural preservation, and I want to do everything I can to protect our remaining culture.”

Purnel and his colleagues look forward to opening the new Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza in late 2020, which will feature a new Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, as well as The Spa at Séc-he, which celebrates the ancient mineral hot spring that forms Palm Springs’ identity.

To the Future

Purnel is committed to the continued economic and cultural development of his tribe and sees himself at the forefront of these efforts in years to come.

In his councilor role since April 2017, he has served on the tribe’s Cultural Preservation and Child Development committees, thus providing a dual focus of supporting the needs of the next generation while preserving the past.

Previously, Purnel served his tribe as a webmaster, keeping the tribe’s web presence updated and functional.

“I will always see myself doing anything I can to contribute to our tribe as a whole, whether I am in a leadership position or as a member of our tribe,” he says. “Our tribe has been in the forefront of economic development projects and charitable contributions in the Coachella Valley. We as a tribe will continue to do whatever we can in contributing to the success of this valley.”

For More on Agua Caliente

Want to experience the native culture and scenery of Agua Caliente firsthand? Purnel and the other members of the tribe would be honored to host you.

In addition to the world-renowned Agua Caliente Casinos, which provide gaming, dining, entertainment and spa facilities, the tribe also supports the more serene Indian Canyons, which include a 60-foot waterfall, ancient rock art and irrigation systems, and protected flora and fauna.

With shaded oases, often in the shadow of 10,833-foot Mt. San Jacinto, much of this area is a welcome relief from the extreme heat of summer.

Hiking opportunities include the easy-to-moderate Murray Canyon route and the 15-mile Palm Canyon, for the more experienced outdoor adventurer.

If you go, be sure to share your photos, using the hashtags #IndianCanyons or #TahquitzCanyon, as appropriate.