Feb 1, 200608:12 AMThe Life
A conversation with the Cahuilla Maiden
Feb 1, 2006 - 08:12 AMPalm Springs and the surrounding area was once the exclusive domain of the Agua Caliente ("AH-gwa cahl-e-EN-tay," Spanish for "hot water") Band of Cahuilla ("kaw-WE-ah") Indians. They established legal right to this land in the 1870s, but its exact zoning wasn't settled until the 1940s, when the development of hotels and leisure complexes was well under way. Every other square mile of Palm Springs forms part of their reservation, and the remaining sections fan across the desert and mountains in a checkerboard pattern. Of the reservation's 31,500 acres, 6,700 lie within the Palm Springs city limits. Lease income has made the Agua Caliente tribe the second richest in America (next to the Mashantucket Pequots of Connecticut), worth more than $2 billion. This wealth has been increasing with the new Spa Resort Casino, right in the heart of town.
A central figure in Agua Caliente mythology is the Cahuilla Maiden, a young girl who tried to save a drowning infant from the hot bubbling spring water which gave this village its name. Although the Maiden did not survive, her selfless attempt to help has taught many generations not to fear the spring, and to respect the spiritual healing it can provide.
I recently spoke with Diana Richards, who modeled for the Cahuilla Maiden sculpture which now stands at the corner of Tahquitz ("TAH-kwish") and Indian Canyon:
How did you get involved with this project?
When the tribe's Cultural Committee decided to put a statue out in front of the remodeled Spa, they just asked if I wanted to pose for the sculptor.
Did you have any misgivings?
My mother, who was on the Committee, showed me an artist's sketch, and I said, "She's not wearing anything on top; I'm not going to do that!" Mom laughed, and reassured me that Doug Hyde, the sculptor, would just take some pictures of me in front of the spring. I didn't realize how significant it would be until six months later, when there was a big presentation and unveiling during the grand reopening of the Spa Hotel.
How has it affected your life?
At the time, my alumni newsletter ran a small item about it, and I received some ribbing from a few of my friends. But these days, most people see it as a great honor. It's nice to think I'll be there for a while, watching over the spring... and that my grandchildren and their children will be able to go see the statue and see me.
You're very active with the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, and you also hold down another job. Since your financial future is assured, why do you continue working?
My parents instilled those values in my heart, and I'm hoping to provide a good example for my own children, too. I think it's important to become a productive member of the community. In conversations with my friends, or new acquaintances, I'm proud to say that I'm working. I think there's been a sort of stigma attached to Indians, even before the gaming movement brought its enormous change, because we had lease incomes and were considered to be "those rich Indians."
I like it when people ask, "What do you do?" I enjoy being able to engage in that conversation, just like everybody else does, and to find out what other people do with their lives. To me, it would be uncomfortable to say that I'm not working. I mean, I don't want to put down stay-at-home moms or dads because I was one myself when my kids were toddlers, but now that they're older I'd wonder what I would do if I weren't working. I'd still feel like I needed to do something, to be involved, to volunteer my time, to be important in a larger cause. I don't think you should just run off and spend here and travel there, simply because you have enough money to do that.
What are some of the projects uppermost in your mind these days?
At the Cultural Museum, we're currently setting exhibit areas for the new building, which is scheduled to open in 2008. And maintaining the Cahuilla language, through classes, is a priority for our tribe's Cultural Committee, even though it's a tough language to learn. Only four or five members of the tribe still speak Cahuilla, so we need to record them, at least, because we won't have anybody to teach it. Our culture is vanishing in front of our eyes, so we're trying to grasp and hold on to anything that we might still have, before it's all gone.
What's the importance of this land, this area, to you and your tribe?
When I was younger, I tried living in other places for about ten years, but I always knew I'd come back home. I have my entire family here, and I've always had them here. When I compare that to my non-Indian friends, they seem to have very little sense of family, because everybody's all over the country. And that's so different from the way I grew up. In a tribe, you have your grandparents, your aunts, your uncles, your first, second, third, fourth cousins. I mean, we reach through... generations!
My tribe is my extended family. There are over 400 of us now, and I haven't spoken to every member, especially some of the younger ones. But at a tribal gathering, I can always turn to one of my aunts, who will tell me how I'm related to any given person.
Whenever a contentious issue comes up at a tribal meeting, somebody will usually say, "But we're a family." To me, this means that we have blood ties to each other, so no matter what else happens, we'll be able to resolve our differences.
Because we are a family.