Building a Future, Preserving a Past

Agua Caliente tribal members maintain a rich heritage and assert a progressive role in contemporary Palm Springs



Lee Arenas overlooking the Coachella Valley.

Photography courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society and Palm Springs Life archives

Palm Springs 75th AnniversaryAs you drive through Palm Springs on streets named Ramon, Tachevah, Tahquitz, and others, the legacy of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians appears omnipresent.

And it should. Those names and many others go back generations, tracing to the Native American tribe that made Palm Springs and surrounding areas its home long before white settlers developed the city as a resort destination.

Today, the tribe’s culture permeates almost every aspect of life in Palm Springs, and its leaders and members are equally important to the community.

“We are just like everyone else,” says Millie Browne, chairwoman of the board of directors for the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum and member of the tribe’s Cultural Committee. “We live in the community. We go shopping, we eat out, we go to the movies, go to the salon, coffee shops. Our kids go to public or private schools. We don’t have special schools. We are not isolated. Our reservation is intertwined with the community. Agua Caliente Cultural Museum hosts programs, special events, and the Native American Film Festival. “These are platforms we can use to tell our own story, to tell what happened,” Browne says.

Archeological artifacts found in the area the Native Americans called Sec-he, or “boiling water,” predate 2000 B.C. “Agua Caliente” is Spanish for “hot waters,” referencing the hot springs that travel underground from the geological faults under Tahquitz and Andreas canyons and emerge at what is now the tribe’s popular Spa Resort Casino.

Before the white man settled in the area, the Agua Caliente tribe lived in villages usually situated in the canyons, which allowed for cool air drifting down in summer and warm air drifting up in winter. They sought the desert floor primarily in the winter months. Because of the unpredictability of the weather, the Agua Caliente had intimate knowledge of plants, animal habits, and proper preparation and storage so that they had year-round access to food from the different areas surrounding Palm Springs.

The population, which was about 6,000 in the late 1700s, followed trails to seasonal camps to harvest food at four altitudes (0-3,500 feet, 3,500-6,300 feet, 6,300-9,000 feet, and above 9,000 feet). The women gathered plants, seeds, nuts, beans, and berries with their baskets. Men and boys hunted the game available at each altitude, from quail and rabbit to antelope and bighorn sheep. The bear, coyote, jaguar, eagle, owl, and mountain lion were considered sacred and not hunted.

In the early 1800s, the tribe used rock-lined ditches coming from Tahquitz, Andreas, and Chino canyons to irrigate its crops of corn, beans, pumpkins, melons, and squash.

Life in the Agua Caliente village centered on round huts (called kish) made of arrowweed covered with palm fronds. The huts surrounded the ceremonial roundhouse.

The tribe’s first recorded contact with white settlers came from the diary of a Mexican captain leading an expedition through the desert to Northern California. These travelers considered the land too desolate for habitation.

Eventually, white settlers stayed, and life changed for the Agua Caliente. Missionaries preached religious conversion, and children were often forcibly taken to boarding schools in Banning and Beaumont.

The Agua Caliente Reservation was established in 1876. On May 15 of that year, Section 14 (downtown Palm Springs) and a portion of Section 22 were set aside by exclusive order of President Ulysses S. Grant for use by the Agua Caliente. Of the 10 miles of checkerboard parcels given to the railroad by the federal government, on either side of the railroad tracks, even-numbered parcels were Indian land and the odd-numbered lots could be developed by the railroad and sold. President Rutherford Hayes set aside more lands in 1877, including even-numbered lots totaling 49 parcels (32,000 acres).

Although the Native Americans had control of their land, they could not lease it or develop it. They were land rich with no source of income other than charging tolls for the bathhouses and entrance to the canyons.

The Native Americans became day laborers, farmhands, and operated ranch machinery. Francisco Patencio picked grapes and peaches. He then worked to build the railroad. He taught himself to read and write Spanish, English, and French. He also spoke seven Indian dialects.

In his 1943 book published by the Times Mirror Co., Stories and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians, Patencio wrote, “As a young man, I worked laying the railroad through the desert country. There were few horses at that time, so the railroad did not use them. They had a few oxen up the mountain dragging logs, but there was not much timber for ties. Most of it was brought from other places.”

Streets and canyons were named for tribal leaders who affected the history of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Alejo Road is named after ceremonial leader Alejo Patencio (1852-1930). Amado Road is named after the late tribal Chairman Richard Milanovich’s grandfather, Miguel Amado (1886-1927). Andreas Canyon, Andreas Road, Andreas Creek Drive, and Andreas Palm Drive are named after John Joseph Andreas (1874-1959), a gatekeeper at the Indian Canyons in the late 1930s. Arenas Road is named after tribal leader Lee Arenas (1870-1966), who used the legal system to change the laws affecting Indian lands. 

Others named for tribal leaders include Baristo Road (Baristo Sol Santiago) and Belardo Road (Marcus and Rosa Belardo). Calle El Segundo is named after Clemente Segundo, a tribal leader who spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C. LaVerne Way is named after Milanovich’s mother, LaVerne Virginia Nelson, who fought for tribal rights to allotments. Ramon Road is named after Indian rights activist Ramon Manuel, and Saturnino is named after Miguel Saturnino, the cowboy, rancher, and tribal leader. Tachevah Road is named for Tachevah Canyon and Tachevah Creek. It means “a plain view” in Cahuilla. Tahquitz Canyon Way is named after one of the Cahuilla’s sacred beings. Vista Chino and Chino Canyon are named for Pedro Chino, one of the most powerful tribal leaders. He was both a net and a pavuul (powerful shaman). He lived to be older than 100. More than 500 Native Americans from across Southern California attended his funeral.

‘Today, the Agua Caliente work in tandem with the City of Palm Springs on zoning issues and for police and fire protection and regulation on Indian lands. If there is a shortfall in federal, state, county, or city tax revenues, the tribe often chips in to pay for fire trucks and more police.  

The tribe also contributes to the community by employing thousands of people in its hotels, casinos, spas, and other attractions, such as the Indian Canyons and Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.

Over the years, the tribe has donated millions of dollars to charities and nonprofit organizations, and it partners with the city on the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

“Education is how we deal with the nontribal community and the nontribal government,” Browne says. “We are partners. We work together for the common good of all. This is our home and our land.”

Tribal members participate in activities of the Agua Caliente Cultural Committee. Some, including the language programs, are not open to the public.

‘“We do bird singing, basket weaving, and field trips,” Browne says.

Twenty-four-year-old Agua Caliente member John Preckwinkle III — the great-grandson of the last ceremonial bird singer, John Joseph Patencio — was raised in a small mountain town away from his tribe. “When I was little, I would go to the local tribe an hour away for my tribal identity,” he says. “Now I’m grown up and living on the reservation. I want to learn as much as I can about my tribe, and I am involved with four different committees. I started learning bird singing when I was 14. I practice bird singing with a group and go to language classes.”

Photography courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society and Palm Springs Life archives

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