Greetings from Cahuillaland

A new, err, old way to look at the mountains, coves, and dunes from the San Gorgonio Pass to the Salton Sea

Tom Brewster

Photography by Tom Brewster

If you meet Jim Toenjes walking his German shepherd dog, Greta, in Eagle Canyon early in the morning, he’ll point out a pinnacle of white rock where Cahuilla tribesmen used to snare eagles. A shaman would stare down the eagle until it died of intimidation; its feathers would be plucked and used in mourning ceremonies.

“There were people here,” says Toenjes, an archaeologist and landscape painter. “But for the element of time, you’d be right here with them.” 

When you’re out hiking with Toenjes, time bends and you are, in fact, there with the early Indians. You leave behind modern Palm Springs and enter the lost world of Cahuillaland. Here, the rocks have names, and tricksters and shapeshifters dart around you. A kind of power — one anthropologist calls it “electricity” — abounds in objects we think of as inanimate.

“Any large or unusual formation of rock was apt to be considered sacred,” writes Cahuilla scholar Lowell Bean. An indentation in a rock, such as the imprint of ribs and hips seen near Point Happy in Indian Wells, might be where a “culture hero walked, leaned or sat,” he continues. In all, this land is pretty far from anyplace you’ll find on Google Earth.

Getting to know Cahuillaland is especially urgent now that a host of elders — the last links to the Native landscape — have died in recent years. Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians tribal chairman Richard Milanovich walked the canyons as a boy; Alvino Siva consorted with Pedro Chino up in Chino Canyon. Tony Andreas, Katherine Siva Saubel, and Ernest “Wildcat” Morreo all, too, have recently died. The biggest unwritten news story of the Coachella Valley is this major loss of Native knowledge and the unraveling of our connection to the Cahuilla landscape.

“There have been so many generations living on this land and caring for this land,” says Sean Milanovich, son of the late tribal chairman. “This has been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years. You can see where the people prayed and talked to their ancestors.”

Cahuillaland comprises the mountains, coves, and dunes from the San Gorgonio Pass out to the Salton Sea. To visit, there is no fee. Admission simply requires a complete shift in worldview, a new way of orienting yourself to reality.

Toss out your usual coordinates: Koffi, Costco, and the Forever Marilyn statue. Your waymarks are now the ancient sea line, extinct villages, old trails, petroglyphs and cupules (small pits in rock), bedrock mortars, caves, and enchanted boulders and peaks. Orient yourself by the Leaning Rock in Chino Canyon, where people left honey and charms to court the animals, or the buried village of Kavinic in Indian Wells.

John Purcell, executive director of Friends of the Desert Mountains, finds his way in by the plants. He lives in Pinyon Crest, once a virtual metropolis to the Cahuilla. “Trails came from everywhere to the Pinyon flats,” according to Francisco Patencio, a ceremonial and political leader who died in 1947.

Outside Purcell’s back door, a forest of ancient creosote and pinyon pines links him directly to earlier residents. “These same trees were used by the elders as recently as the 1900s,” he says.

A piece of pottery might be the ticket for Bureau of Land Management interpretive specialist Tracy Albrecht. When she finds a potshard near her Snow Creek home and cradles it in her palm, she says it’s like touching the hand of the Cahuilla woman or man who made it. (Cahuillaland explorers never forget to put the shards back where they found them.)

As you plot your Cahuilla map, Tahquitz Canyon is an obvious signpost because of its visibility (you can see the jagged gorge anywhere around town) and its resident spirit, Taw’ kwish. He may greet you as a ball of fire, a rumbling in the earth. Lowell Bean, an anthropologist, says power in the Cahuilla worldview can be both benevolent and evil. Tahquitz has plenty of both.

Nearly as power-packed is Chino Canyon, home of Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and once home to the shaman Pedro Chino, who could shapeshift into a mountain lion and travel on hidden waterways under the mountain.

Another essential coordinate is the Indian Canyons, where jaguar and grizzlies roamed in earlier days. The trails you walk here are themselves a direct link to the Cahuilla. Archaeologist Harry Quinn says Palm Canyon trails connected to pathways going all the way to Baja California and north into the Mojave Desert.

At the entrance to Andreas Canyon, the loaf-shaped mound is Creation Hill, the place where the Panik people first emerged, according to the Cahuilla creation story. Farther up the canyon, hikers identify Bullseye Rock as “the place where brains were splashed.” In a rare battle between the usually peaceable Palm Springs people and the Seven Palms people of Desert Hot Springs, the heads of the vanquished were carried in nets to this rock and smashed in retaliation and triumph.

Down valley, toward Indian Wells, the tall dunes and thickets of mesquite of Cahuillaland have mostly disappeared. That should be no impediment to the time-bending traveler. Picture Point Happy, where the Cliff House restaurant is today. In the early 1980s, Toenjes discovered pottery, cremated bone, beads, and burnt clay on the dunes near here — artifacts of Kavinic, a great village system that today slumbers beneath sculpted medians, resort hotels, and manicured golf courses.

Farther south in the Santa Rosa Mountains, you’ll find multiple V-shaped rock formations made to capture freshwater mullet and bonytail chub. Look up from the fishtraps and you’ll see the bathtub ring of ancient Lake Cahuilla. The lake, now the Salton Sea, is as important to Cahuillaland as the Pacific Ocean is to California. 

Feeling powerless in the current economy? Facebook leave you feeling friendless? Take a trip to Cahuillaland, where there are friends in every rock; and the wind, stars, peaks and springs all crackle with power. As Sean Milanovich says: “It is really big. It’s really deep.”  

Explore the Cahuilla

To learn about hundreds of specific sites on the Cahuilla map, read:

The Cahuilla Landscape: The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains
(Ballena Press, 1991)  by Lowell Bean

Stories and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians
(Palm Springs Desert Museum, 1969) by Francisco Patencio offers used copies of both books.

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