History: Odlum committee attempted to solve fateful Indian land issues

Floyd Odlum pictured in his office at his Indio Ranch in 1963, with portrait of President Eisenhower on the wall.
Floyd Odlum pictured in his office at his Indio Ranch in 1963, with portrait of President Eisenhower on the wall.

The fate of the movie “Citizen Kane” was unsure in January 1941. Orson Welles waited to conference with Floyd Odlum and George Schaefer, described by the Los Angeles Evening Citizen News as “the big men of RKO,” in order to convince the businessmen to take a chance with the film. Now considered by many to be the best movie ever made, it might never have been seen.

Odlum controlled the studio as its biggest investor and decided the movie would indeed be released. Odlum was accustomed to making very serious, fateful decisions.

Despite having previously been a devoted Democrat, Odlum was selected by the Eisenhower administration to lead a committee to try to sort out the complicated “mess” of Indian land ownership and the problem of profound poverty of the native peoples in Palm Springs. He ostensibly had the business expertise to do so.

During the Great Depression, Odlum amassed a fortune while others lost everything. His New York Times obituary summarized his long career which “left an imprint on virtually every segment of corporate America. It began when he founded the Atlas Corporation in 1923, which specialized in capital formation and management. In the Depression, Mr. Odlum reorganized companies in almost every kind of industry, including banking, railroads, department stores, public utilities, motion pictures, aircraft, oil and mining. And as a $1‐a‐year consultant to Presidents Hoover, Roosevelt and Truman and as director of the Office of Production Management during World War II, he had contacts with a vast array of businessmen.”

“One of the main decisions made by Mr. Odlum that affected the course of business and of the nation was his insistence on the development of the Atlas missile, which later would start man on his way to the moon.”

Almost as difficult as a trip to the moon, Odlum’s foray into the logistics of Indian land development in Palm Springs occurred while he was still chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the Atlas Corporation and chairman of RKO Pictures and multiple other huge companies.

Prior to the December 1954 assignment, Odlum knew none of the other businessmen on the committee, “and he knew nothing up to that point about Indians.”

George Ringwald, the Riverside Press-Enterprise staff writer who would later win a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the treatment of Indian owners by their conservators, described the committee as “members of the country club set in the desert resort area, active in charities and society here, prominent in their hometowns as drug manufacturers and lumbermen and newspaper publishers.” Importantly, none of the members of the committee had business interests in the desert and therefore no conflicts of interest; their decisions would be unimpeachable.

But Odlum was not merely a millionaire country club dandy. Married to Jacqueline Cochran, he had an avid interest in aviation. The couple lived on an expansive ranch in Indio after their marriage in 1936, as it eased his severe rheumatoid arthritis. He conducted his worldwide business from the desert, often taking telephone calls on a rubberized receiver while floating in his Olympic‐sized swimming pool. The Odlums divided their time between California and New York, where they had a showplace apartment overlooking the East River.

By the middle of the 20th century, they lived full-time at the ranch, hosting important visitors including General James Doolittle, Bob Hope, Dr. Edward Teller, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, Gloria Swanson, Walt Disney, Amelia Earhart, Madame Chaing Kai-shek, Nelson Rockefeller and Howard Hughes, who for years depended on Odlum's business advice and to whom he sold RKO Pictures for $17 million in 1948.

Odlum often had a poor opinion of government and the softening of American business. Businessmen, he said, are “not as much on the ball as earlier generations because they are interested too much in golf courses, options and pensions instead of making money for their companies.”

Further, he wisely advised the government should be put on “a pay‐as‐you‐go basis” to avoid economic disaster. “Government is sticking its fingers too far into everything. We've got to get ourselves where we can make goods to sell to the world market at a profit. We've got to work harder.”

Odlum’s friend President Dwight Eisenhower had come to the desert in February 1954 and had seen firsthand the poverty inflicted on the Indians by the restrictive land leasing policies of the federal government. At the administration’s behest, Odlum’s committee was constituted in December of that same year.

The Odlums adored the desert, and its prosperity was inextricably linked to Indian land and the vexing issues associated its development. Odlum agreed to work to find an old-fashioned business solution to the complicated problem.

Odlum recalled for Ringwald “that the Agua Calientes had ‘gotten into a mess. They had this small tribe, very rich in assets and very poor in fact.’” In the late 1960s, Ringwald wrote that Odlum remembered that “a group of lawyers had been successful (in a 1945 court decision) in getting allotments of land for the individual members of the tribe from the 32,000-acre tribal reservation in Palm Springs.”

Odlum concluded: “And that didn’t work out well at all. It was very rich for some and very poor for others.”

Ringwald paraphrased further that “The Bureau of Indian Affairs … hadn’t done much to help the situation. ‘It had been going around in circles. It was bureaucracy at its worst. They’d talk and talk and talk and shuffle papers and never get anywhere …'”

“Into that mess of bureaucracy stepped Odlum and his fellow businessmen …”

Odlum and his committee set about studying the situation and deciding purely business-like solutions. It recommended terminating the federal government trusteeship over the Indian reservation. “This has been traditionally opposed by the Indians — because it would lead to the decimation of the tribe and the reservation, because it would eliminate their exemption from property taxes, because it might take away their mineral and water rights, and because it would leave those considered incompetent easy prey to the unscrupulous.”

The committee recommended putting all the tribal lands under one privately operated trust, such as a “trust company or similar institution in the area.” And its private trustee would “have full right to rent, develop, deal with and otherwise dispose of the tribal assets.”

It recommended that individual Indian allotments be “equalized” amongst tribal members who numbered only 100 at the time. This notion was accomplished through the Equalization Bill signed into law by President Eisenhower in 1959.

But the remainder of the Odlum Committee recommendations were never implemented. Ringwald explained, “The Indians, then and now, saw the originally proposed and quickly withdrawn Congressional bill, based on the Odlum report, as a way of wiping out the tribe, destroying its identity” — a calamitous fate to be avoided.

Tracy Conrad is president of the Palm Springs Historical Society. The Thanks for the Memories column appears Sundays in The Desert Sun. Write to her at pshstracy@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Palm Springs history: Odlum attempted to solve Indian land issues