Hardcover, First Edition:  264 pages, 261 illustrations

You Can’t Eat Dirt is published by the Fan Palm Research Project.  

Available now.

Part autobiography, part biography, this beautifully designed book—filled with photographs, maps, historical documents, and news clippings–chronicles how, in 1952, Vyola Olinger (later Ortner)–then a wife, mother, and small-business owner living in Downey, California–unexpectedly found herself vice chairman of the Tribal Council for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.  In fascinating detail, it describes Olinger’s rapid ascent to Tribal Council Chairman of this disadvantaged band in Palm Springs, California. It explains how–against all odds, including one of the greatest human motivators ever—economic greed–Olinger and her fellow female tribal leaders set in motion a sequence of events during the 1950s that would alter the destinies and fortunes of their native people and, ultimately, Native Americans across the nation.


 While a woman’s singular journey is the unifying thread of You Can’t Eat Dirt, this multifaceted volume also presents a history of the modern Agua Caliente Cahuilla and documents the tribe’s significant role transforming Palm Springs into a modern world-class resort. Set against a rich display of historical photographs and rare documents, it features Ortner’s first-hand account of her years as a tribal and civic leader. It is supplemented with a substantial critical and historical essay on her political work by Diana C. du Pont.


A comprehensive chronology provides both a record of Ortner’s public life and a selected timeline of important events in Native America, especially the Agua Caliente Cahuilla. The book also offers valuable insight on Ortner’s contributions through forewords  by Ross O. Swimmer, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, 1975-85; Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, 1985-89; and Special Trustee for American Indians, United States Department of the Interior, 2001-09, and Lowell John Bean, Professor Emeritus, Anthropology, California State University, Hayward.

Center:  In Washington, DC, on Capitol Hill, with US Congressman 

D.S. Saund and Mayor of Palm Springs, Frank Bogert, late 1950s.

Bottom and header image:  Agua Caliente Cahuilla Tribal Council, 1956.