In Honor of Californian Native American Day on September 27th – Part I

Palm Spring History

Posted By: Matt Link Thursday, October 3, 2013

Agua Caliente Band tribal leader Lee Arenas (1870-1966), looking over the Indian lands he legally fought to protect.

This two-part series is in honor of Palm Springs’ (well, actually Sec-he’s) first inhabitants - 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 gave to the land and vice versa, the more the Palm Springs area deepens and clarifies itself before your very eyes.

September 27th 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 on October 12th, “Dinner in the Canyons,” hosted by tribal members in the gorgeous ancestral home of Arenas Canyon, and benefitting The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.

We've gone though all the history books and cultural essays and news items for you to bring below easy-to-digest Cahuilla Cheat Sheets to give you an idea of the tip of the iceberg to the great heritage Palm Springs sits upon, and all the layers of depth below...

The Agua Caliente Band 101:
  • For thousands of years into the current day, The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has called Palm Springs home. The Cahuilla tribe has nine geographical subgroupings throughout Riverside County called “bands.” (Two additional bands of Cahuilla around Palm Desert sadly went extinct in the early 1900s.) The Agua Caliente Band’s current population is close to 400 and growing.
  • The Agua Caliente Indian Reservation occupies nearly 50 square miles across the Coachella Valley cities of Palm Springs, Cathedral City, and Rancho Mirage. Around 22,000 non-tribal residents technically live and/or own houses on the Agua Caliente Band’s reservation by way of decades-long land leases offered by the tribe.

Learn Some Words in Cahuilla, Before The Language Disappears Forever:
  • The first and most important thing you need to know is the real name for Palm Springs: Sec-he or Se-khi, meaning “boiling water.” The Spanish extended the village’s name to its inhabitants: Agua Caliente.
  • The nine bands of the Cahuilla tribe share the same Shoshonean language branch of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic tree (a group that includes the Aztecs of Mexico, the Hopi of New Mexico, the Papago and Pima of Arizona, and the Ute of Colorado).

  • Alvino Siva, the last completely fluent speaker of Cahuilla, died in 2009. The language is now nearly extinct, but Alvino’s mission of teaching the traditional bird songs – the cornerstone of Cahuilla culture – to younger generations succeeded. The tribe is attempting to slowly but surely revive the language.

2,000 Years of Cahuilla History in 2 Minutes:

  • Archaeological remains show that humans have occupied the Tahquitz Canyon area for at least 2,000 years.
  • The Cahuilla beat the summer heat by heading higher up into the cooler elevations of the San Jacinto Mountains, and then returning to the floor of The Coachella Valley to enjoy a nice warm winter. These seasonal sojourns to different climates helped vary and enlarge their famine-prone food sources.  
  • The Cahuilla first bumped into Europeans in 1774 with Juan Bautista de Anza’s expedition. Luckily, the harshness of the deserts repelled the Spanish, leaving the Cahuilla population and its culture relatively intact compared to the fate of other California tribes.
  • In 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant set aside Tahquitz Canyon as the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation. But it took the U.S. government another generation to finalize where individual Indian allotments and Tribal lands were – in 1959!
  • The Agua Caliente Band’s long-suffering patience was further insulted with a final reservation map that looked more like a fractured patchwork quilt than a unified tribal homeland. This uncommon situation was due to the land grants the U.S. government gave to the first railroad lines that trumped the Indians' land rights. 

  • But fate had the last laugh: The wide scattering of the tribe’s land holdings became a boon when Palm Springs transformed into a glamorous vacationland for Hollywood stars. The Agua Caliente Band found themselves owners of some prime real estate in downtown and within wealthy neighborhoods.
  • The Cahuilla Tribe and its members are now Palm Springs’ largest single landowner - the Indians own roughly 31,500 acres.
  • A legal sequel 100 years in the making, The Agua Caliente Band has once again stood up to the U.S. government over tribal water rights. The precedent-setting Supreme Court 1908 decision in Winters vs. United States (which set the standard for tribal water rights on reservations) felt like deja-vu last May when the Band filed a federal lawsuit stating they had “prior and paramount” rights to ground and surface water in the Coachella Valley. Greed over resources wasn't the Indians goal - rather, stewardship toward their ancient homeland in an effort to stop the local water authorities from further degrading the quantity and quality of water in the Coachella Valley’s huge underground aquifer, which holds natural 39 million acre-feet of water but is losing it quickly.

Legendary Cahuilla Figures

  • According to some legends, Tahquitz was the name of the very first shaman made by Mukat, the creator of all things. Tahquitz first used his power to help people, but over time he became selfish and mean. Some versions relate how Tahquitz kidnapped pretty maidens bathing in the mineral waters of Palm Springs, and then having his way with them in his nearby namesake canyon. The tribe finally had enough and chased the shaman high into the San Jacinto Mountains, where he found refuge in a secret cave below the towering rock. It’s known today as Tahquitz Peak, and he still resides there to this day.
  • As you may have guessed, Tahquitz isn’t too happy about his fate. When you see bolts of lightening and hear cracks of thunder above the 10,000-foot peak of San Jacinto above Palm Springs – or feel the deep rumble of a random earthquake from the nearby San Andreas Fault – that’s Tahquitz, still getting over his bitterness issues. (The timeless moral: Get over your evil selfishness before someone chases you into a cave prison where you’ll spend eternity with your fiery rage as your lousy roommate!)  
  • More honorable members of the Cahuilla Tribe include: Cognitive psychologist Marigold Linton, co–founder of The National Indian Education Association and a widely-cited long term memory researcher; and Major League baseball catcher John Tortes “Chief” Meyers (below), who played three World Series with the New York Giants.

Cahuilla Annual Events Cheat Sheet

  • The Agua Caliente Band’s annual January powwow is called The Bird Song and Dance Festival, (Wikitmallem Tahmuwhae) held at the Palm Springs High School. Like the Hawaiian hula and other indigenous traditions, it's not a mere a dance and song but a disciplined oral recounting of the specific history of a people (shown below). The Agua Caliente Band’s brethren at the nearby Morongo Indian Reservation hold an even larger powwow each September called Thunder & Lightning Powwow. It also features Cahuilla bird songs and dances, and happens September 27-29, 2013.

  • Don’t miss the annual five-day Native FilmFest in late February/early March. It’s one of the most highly-regarded film festivals of its kind, now in its 12th year. Feature films, documentaries, and shorts from some of today’s premier Native American and indigenous filmmakers are followed by informative Q&A sessions.
  • 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 – benefitting 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 information, visit or call 760-833-8167.

Stay tuned for our second part of this series that will discuss the importance of the Indian Canyons to the Agua Caliente Band, and how the oases saved them both physcially and spiritually - and also how things got very shook up in the sacred canyons in 2013.

To find out news, events, politics, and cultural happenings with The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the tribe’s web site has it all at And now that you’re a PhD in all things Cahuilla, take the online quiz to test your local Native American knowledge!


  • Julie Gimbel - Concierge at The Viceroy Thursday, July 10, 2014 21:51 PM

    Wonderful accounting of the amazing Cahuilla people!

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