When the first white men entered what is now the Palm Springs area in the 1700's, according to Indian history, they wanted something from the natives: gold. This seemed like a strange request to the Indians, because they'd never paid much attention to the stuff. As recounted 40 years ago by Chief Francisco Patencio:

"From the high mountain ledges to the sides of the rivers, we saw the gold, we walked among it with our feet. Gold and silver were just like dirt and rocks in those times. Then [we] learned that these new White Indians among us -- they liked the gold that we had walked over since the early times." So "the Indians went to bring the gold," and "always the white people wanted to know where they went to get it -- always." But then "the Indians did not starve so much."

Today this movie is playing once again. This time it's the Indian's land that the white men want -- a familiar story, except that this time the newcomers are having to pay dearly, simply for the privilege of leasing it.

Developers in Palm Springs, having run out of private property on which to build their resort town enterprises, have turned to the reservation lands owned under trust by members of the minuscule Agua Caliente band of the Cahuilla tribe. The original landlords, after overcoming more than 85 years of restrictive overparenting by the government, are finally cashing in on the boom town bonanza.

Approximately 100 of the 188 Agua Calientes own nearly half of the land in the Palm Springs area, and are pulling in an average of more than $50,000 a year from renting it -- an income that is utterly tax-free. This figure, a conservative estimate, is escalating every year as the Indians' leases mature to the point where they can share in the developers' profits, and as new buildings shoot up on the Indians' 640-acre tract in the heart of the city. Each tribal landholder is sitting on more than a million dollars of premium real estate.

They are California's richest Indians, and yet they're not alone. All over the West, tribes are discovering that the barren reservation lands to which they've been relegated are now gaining in value as the white settlers push out from their cities and fill in the wide open spaces.

Other tribes in Oklahoma and Wyoming have gotten even richer from oil and mineral reserves under their homelands.

They're the Indians who got the last laugh. Sort of.

The Agua Caliente, having been declared the lucky-buck winners of the land-speculation lottery because of their unique status as Indians, have promptly ceased being unique. Inevitably, they're becoming a lost people, disappearing into the one big happy tribe of Southern Californians.

Their wealth has allowed them to settle into some of Palm Spring's better neighborhoods. Neither clustered on a reservation (for this is their reservation), nor dispersed to the urban slums, the Agua Caliente live scattered anonymously among the outlanders in unspectacular comfort, commonly mistaken for Mexicans or Hawaiians or Filipinos. A nation invisible, with unlisted telephones, they've faded back behind the shrubbery.

By their own acknowledgement, they have lost track of all but their faintest memories of their heritage. Sue Short, an alternate member of the tribal council, says that when she reminded her 8-year-old son recently that he was an Indian, the kid replied, "How can I be? I don't have feathers!"

Short says she tells her children to "be proud of what you are. Just like the birds and the whales, you're becoming extinct."

To be precise, in today's Palm Springs of 35,000 residents, there are but 78 Agua Calientes. Their numbers haven't diminished over the years; they've simply been overwhelmed. Nowadays there are more air-conditioning repairmen in Palm Springs than there are Indians -- more croquet players, more retired dentists, more poodles barking inside their owners' locked Cadillacs on Palm Canyon Drive.

This is how the Agua Caliente finally came to gain control of the land they had walked over since the early times:

For uncounted thousands of years, small clans of red people lived at this place in the desert, at the foot of the towering mountains, where hot water bubbled up out of the earth. They called the place Se-Khe. They coaxed a spare existence from the dry land, hunting and gathering, and took spiritual and curative sustenance from the mineral springs, and when summer came they left their grass shacks and retreated to the cool mountain canyons.

They were still living this way a hundred years ago when the federal government, in its expansionist exuberance, granted half of the land in the area to the Southern Pacific Railroad and declared that the other half would be "an Indian reservation." A crazy-quilt pattern of checkerboard squares was mapped out -- the odd-numbered square-mile sections going to the railroad and the even-numbered sections labeled reservation land. For convenience, the three existing native clans in the area were grouped together under the Spanish name "Agua Caliente" (meaning hot water) and informed of this new arrangement and their status as wards of the state.

The Indians adapted. The decisions in Washington didn't change their lives at first. It was 1884 before the first permanent white settler arrived. By 1913, the population of Palm Springs was still only 50 Indians and 25 settlers. The Indians still lived in their huts around the springs, and shared the healing waters with the newcomers, and summered in the mountain canyons.

In the meantime, the railroad had sold its checkerboard squares to other interests, and it looked as if the Indians would be granted their own private properties as well. In 1891, Congress authorized the secretary of the interior to divide up the 32,000-acre reservation into individual allotments, letting each Indian have a share of it.

There was one stipulation. This was to happen when the interior secretary decided that the Indians were sufficiently civilized to handle the responsibilities of "owning" land. It was a benevolent concern, because the Indians were unaccustomed to this possessive concept and would have been, in the later words of their legal counsel, "an easy mark for every swindler and fast talker in the West."

In any case, the land allotments weren't forthcoming. Interior secretaries came and went. Decades passed. Palm Springs started to grow. In 1927, Congress demanded that the allotments be made, and the Indians dutifully selected their own parcels of the Great Spirit's real estate, but still the Interior Department refused to act, and 10 years later several Indians took the government to court.

It wasn't until 1949, after a delay of more than half a century, that the allotments were approved, and then another 10 years dragged on before the feds grudingly granted the Indians the right to offer long-term leases on their land, making development possible.

By this time, Palm Springs had grown up to be a glittering resort, and if you flew over it in a plane you could see how neatly the settlers had won the game of checkers: All of the fabulous growth had occurred on the odd-numbered squares, while the Indian sections gave back a vacant stare. It wasn't pure generosity that the Indians were allowed to lease their land out for development. The Anglos had damn near run out of land of their own.

Nevertheless, each Agua Caliente as of 1959 received a minimum of 47 acres of property worth $335,000 at the time (while the historic canyons were preserved in common trust).

Since the Indians were clearly still incompetent to deal with the nuances of ownership, the U.S. government kept title to their properties and the courts appointed "conservators" to manage their financial affairs.

Indians today tell bitter stories of those days -- of a $5,000 automobile costing $10,000 once the conservator and his lawyer friend got their cut; of a mother having to ask her conservator for $100 so she could buy her family Christmas presents; of having to appear at the conservators' offices on "indian Day" to get permission to buy a horse or a cow or a color TV.

Palm Springs realtor Clarence Brechlin, a former conservator who numbers several Agua Caliente among his free market clients today, points out that the Indians never would have put together their first big lease packages without the help of their guardians. He remembers that "some of them were living in cars and I gave them money out of my own pocket to keep them alive" until their fortunes rolled in.

However, there were enough bad apples that when the Interior Department investigated it discovered that more than a third of the Indians' income was being consumed by the administrators. The Aqua Caliente, tired of being treated like children, finally persuaded the courts in 1968 to let them have access to their own money.

The struggle now turned to zoning laws, which presented still further restrictions. Richard S. McDermott, director of the local Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) office, concedes tactfully that "there's been a lot of feeling through the years that the white guy got the better zoning."

That changed abruptly in 1977 when Uncle Sam gave the Agua Caliente the right to veto the city's zoning decisions, since their properties were still held in federal trust. The ruling startled the Anglo establishment. Some leaders worried out loud that the Indians would go hog wild for profit at the expense of sensible urban planning.

So far the tribal council has exercised its veto power twice -- to allow a supermarket where the city didn't want one, and to allow a zoning change to pass without an environmental-impact statement.

Meanwhile, their properties are spouting new banks and shopping centers and country clubs, and their incomes are curving steadily skyward. Exempt from state and local property taxes, they're enjoying a healthy competitive edge.

Palm Springs' director of community development, John Mangione, is cautious in talking about the Indians, not wanting to offend, but he admits to a frustration at having to deal with an equal power now. "We try to get along," he says.

Basically, the city is afraid the Indians will permit too much high-density growth and disturb the quiet elegance of Palm Springs.

It's a matter of taste. Do the Indians have it, or don't they? Would they have thought, for example, as the city fathers did, to equip every palm tree on the downtown boulevards with electrical sockets?

On the trial of the invisible Indians:

An interview was arranged at 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning between the out-of-town reporter and the tribal council. Patrick Patencio, the tribal secretary, after a short formal talk the day before, has arranged this even more formal mass briefing.

Only two council members, Patencio and Sue Short, appear for the meeting, along with Patencio's 18-year-old son, Moraino, who's running for a seat on the council. Ray Patencio, Patrick's brother and the council chairman, drops in on the meeting for a minute or two, eyeing me carefully from under his hat brim. He objects to my questions about how wealthy his people are, and walks out.

The others are eager, most of all, to dispel the popular notion that the Agua Calientes are all millionaires.

Patrick Patencio says he himself has "a middle income" and lives modestly in "a small three-bedroom house with a garage" in suburban Cathedral City. Sue Short says her family can't afford a swimming pool; all five of her kids want to go to college.

"Dinner at Denny's is my big night out," she says, and young Moraino adds, "Some of us so-called millionaires can't afford to eat here."

They remind me that nearly half of the Agua Calientes don't own any land at all. Those, such as Moraino, who were born after 1959, when the allotments were doled out, own nothing but the promise of an inheritance some day -- and Indians don't put much stock in promises.

They say that to own $1 million worth of real estate is not to have $1 million in your pocket. They didn't get rich overnight. In every celebrated deal that has benefited an Indian landowner, a white developer has quietly prospered as well.

They talk about the two circumstances that constitute their greatest irony -- about how they've lost touch with their tribal traditions, and yet how they're still seen through the white man's eyes, when at all, as aboriginal novelties.

"My family used to tell stories," Sue Short says, "but I don't remember them any more. All sorts of stories . . . how everything began . . . "

Moraino adds, "It's hard because you can't use any of what you learn about Indian lore in public schools."

Short offers, "I don't feel too comfortable in the white man's society."

She gives a ludicrous example. She happens to own chunks of land, she says, under two of the area's exclusive country clubs, and has a lessor's card that entitles her to enjoy the facilities at one of them. But when she tried to use it one day the man at the club asked her "Where did you get this card?" as if to say, "You don't look like the other people who come to play golf."

Willie Adams has been down this road before.

A jovial dark-skinned Creek Indian in his mid-40s, Adams is a BIA realty adviser to the Agua Caliente. He's been in Palm Springs only since last fall, but he offers a singular perspective because his own tribe struck it rich during his childhood when oil was discovered under their reservation in Oklahoma.

"I saw my people blow what they got," he says now. They "p--ed it up a stump."

It's only human, he says, to want what's always been denied you. Naturally some of the Agua Calientes have lived it up. "But when you compare them to other tribes who've come into sudden wealth, their handling of their money has been remarkably prudent."

"With their money they could run this town," he says, "but they don't choose to."

Of course the natives are reluctant to talk about their riches, he says. They're "a very private people." Besides, "I doubt if any person who is wealthy will admit to it." It could be dangerous; it could invite kidnapers.

Willie Adams pronounces, wryly, that the white folks of Palm Springs tend to think that the Agua Caliente haven't earned their windfall. "They say, 'Creature comforts are one thing . . . not having to work for it is another thing.' It's the common talk in this town -- that they don't deserve the action."

At the corner of Indian Avenue and Tahquitz-McCallum Boulevard in downtown Palm Springs is a bronze historical marker which says:

"This plaque marks the site of the mineral springs which for centuries past has been a shrine and gathering lace of the Cahuilla Indians," who have now "entrusted to the Palm Springs Spa, Inc. the scientific control and application of the previous hot waters. . . Though modern hydrotherapy, the maximum benefits from these waters are not available to all at this most beautiful bathhouse in the world."

Behind the plaque looms the grandiose block-square Palm Spring Spa and Hotel. This was the first major development on Indian land when it was built in the early 1960s. It set the pattern for everything that has followed.

The original sacred spring, understandably, is no more. Its waters have been captured into three tiled pools modeled after the baths of the Roman Empire.

Watching my people sunning themselves in poolside lounge chairs and applying their various tanning lotions, I'm struck by the similarity of this scene to a scene in the Agua Calientes' ancient myth of The Creation.

As told by Chief Patencio in 1943 in the book "Stories and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians":

When the first human beings were formed out of the different clays of the earth, "the white-clay people were not pleased about being the only ones without color. They tried to be dark, like the rest. They put different clay on themselves, but it was no good. It came right off after awhile," and the white people wandered away from the family of man, condemned to be different.

Now, it seems, the white-clay people are still trying to get dark, and the red-clay people -- bleached by the passing of time, having forgotten the old stories and songs -- are on the phone to their brokers.