In Honor of Californian Native American Day

September 27th – Part 2

Posted By: Matt Link Thursday, October 3, 2013
This two-part series is in honor of Palm Springs’ first inhabitants, the Cahuilla, who continue to invigorate the area’s culture, land, economy, not to mention its very soul. Indigenous society may appear insular and mysterious from an outsider’s perspective – but the more you understand the unique story and heritage of The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and the spiritual energy they infused in the land and vice versa, the more that Palm Springs deepens and clarifies itself before your very eyes. 

In Part 1, we learned that the Cahuilla tribe of Southern California consists of nine local subgroupings called “bands,” all linked by a common language (which is sadly becoming extinct). The Agua Caliente Indian Band’s reservation occupies nearly 50 square miles across the Coachella Valley cities of Palm Springs, Cathedral City, and Rancho Mirage, and the tribe’s population is around 400.

The fourth Friday in September is the official state holiday called Californian Native American Day, and it’s followed by one of the Coachella Valley’s most unique annual gala fundraising events called “Dinner in the Canyons” on October 12th, hosted by tribal members and benefitting The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum. (See details at the bottom of page).

“Celebrating Native American Day gives us the opportunity to reflect on our own history here in the Coachella Valley,” Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe said. “The Cahuilla Indians have lived here since time immemorial. Our ancestors have been stewards of the land and water in the Coachella Valley for centuries. As we celebrate Native American Day this year, we celebrate our continued commitment to our community and to our environment.

The Indian Canyons: The Agua Caliente Band’s Heartland

“As Agua Caliente and as Cahuilla people, we tell two stories of who we are,” wrote Mildred Browne, Chairwoman of the Board of Directors for the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum. “One is spiritual and born of our ancient relationship with the desert lands of the Coachella Valley and the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains. The other is the story of our struggle to retain our lands and culture and shape our own destiny. Over the years these stories have intertwined to form who we are.”

The year 2013 has hammered home the Cahuilla’s ancient struggles – both the physical and the spiritual. In recent months, the fury of nature hit the tribe right in their traditional homelands. The world-renowned “Indian Canyons” that make up a 50 square-mile series of tribal-run parks are located just to the west and south of Palm Springs proper. When you explore these areas and their virgin mountainsides, deep quiet canyons, and sparkling year-round oasis waters lined with native California fan palms (the only palm tree indigenous to the western U.S.), it’s hard to believe these Edens exist mere minutes from downtown Palm Springs.

The Indian Canyons are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and draw over 125,000 visitors a year who delve into the miles of hiking trails, untouched nature, archeology, and culture of the region’s first inhabitants.

But if anyone has an intimate understanding of how quickly the desert can turn on itself, it’s The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. This past July, over 6,000 acres burned on their reservation from one of the worst mountain fires the region had seen in decades, temporarily closing visits to all of The Indian Canyons. Then the tribe had to again close the Indian Canyons to visitors after heavy flash flood damage in early September. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has since re-opened the popular Tahquitz Canyon (with its 60-foot seasonal waterfall shown at the top of this page), but the other canyons are off-limits for now so the tribe can assess the damage and the land can slowly heal itself after these twin traumas.

Exploring Cahuilla Heritage in Palm Springs
  • The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum is the first Native American museum to be part of the Smithsonian Affiliation Program, and the museum collaborates with UCLA/Getty’s Masters Program. Located in downtown at the Village Green Heritage Center, you’ll get an up-close look at an extensive collection of baskets, ceramics, and many other precious antiquities. The museum also offers fascinating lectures, Native American art making classes, special events featuring storytelling and traditional song and dance, guided canyon hikes, and plenty of fun programs for the kids.
  • The original name for Palm Springs is Sec-he or Se-khi, meaning “boiling water,” and it’s how the Agua Caliente Band got their name. Palm Springs’ hot mineral waters are what brought the first tourists to area in the early 1900s in hopes of curing their tuberculosis and other diseases. Treat yourself to “The Taking of the Waters” at the Indian-owned Spa Resort Casino in downtown Palm Springs. This relaxing ritual is in an indoor hot springs (pictured below), site of where the ancient Cahuilla came to bathe and connect with a spiritual underworld populated by nukatem, or ancient sacred beings. You can rest your weary bones in private hot tubs filled with rich healing mineral waters as part of a luxurious sauna/steamroom/spa experience.
  • Inside the Spa Resort Casino’s sprawling glass lobby, be sure to check out The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum’s off-site exhibition about the spiritual Wahaatukicnikic Tetayaw (Blue Frog) living at the Agua Caliente Hot Springs. Don’t worry – there won’t be any amphibians joining you in your soaking tub nowadays!
  • The Agua Caliente Band’s annual powwow is called the Bird Song and Dance Festival, named after the Cahuilla art form used to preserve its oral history and tradition. The annual five-day Native FilmFest in late February/early March is one of the most highly-regarded film festivals of its kind, now in its 12th year. And one of Palm Springs’ best and most unique annual gala fundraising events is “Dinner in the Canyons,” held in the 
      magnificent palm oasis of Andreas Canyon - an ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians – for the benefit of The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum. The evening includes professional Native American and Maori singers, dancers, and musicians, as well as a live auction. It’s coming up on Saturday, October 12, 2013, starting at 5:30PM.
    For more info on The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the tribe’s web site is And now that you’re a PhD in all things Cahuilla, take their online quiz to test your local Native American knowledge.


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