Items from the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum gift shop.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAN ESLINGER
Entering the new
Agua Caliente Cultural Museum feels like a welcoming embrace. You follow the curve of the building away from street noise and toward the sound of waterfalls bubbling under indigenous Washingtonia filifera palms along the Oasis Trail. Inside the lobby, shades of sand and sky contrast with rich umber and copper suggesting desert varnish, the patina formed on boulders over thousands of years. Sunlight moves across a terrazzo floor bearing the design of the logo of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and you have entered the Tribe’s cultural home.
The building makes a powerful statement about the Tribe’s vitality, strength, relevance, and endurance. It sits on one of the Coachella Valley’s most important historic pieces of land, the site of Séc-he, the sacred Hot Mineral Spring that has sustained the Tribe since time immemorial.
The Museum’s permanent exhibition weaves past and present, beginning with a map of Cahuilla territory overlaid with the boundaries and unique checkerboard pattern of the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation. A traditional basket and olla, or ceramic pot, serve as touchstones of Tribal artistry and tradition, followed by a multichannel video montage showing the beauty of the land today.
Agua Caliente Museum.
PHOTO BY KATE ANDERSON
The path winds — there are few right angles in the museum — and enters the tall, circular Creation Migration Theater, where a 12-minute digital animation piece is meant to help visitors understand the Tribe’s history and core beliefs. It’s based on the writings of Tribal Elder Francisco Patencio and narrated by a Tribal member.
“The Tribe is the curator,” says Executive Director Steven Karr. “As museum professionals, we’re simply the facilitators. Every face you see and every voice you hear in the entirety of the exhibition is Agua Caliente. It’s the Tribe’s words and the Tribe’s voice — it is we, our, us.”
Leaving the theater, the sinuous path passes under a flock of stylized white birds symbolizing the Tribe’s period of migration before returning to their home.
A quote from Patencio, speaking to the spiritual significance and permanence of the Tribe’s ancestral home, now known as the Coachella Valley, provides context for a gallery devoted to the Indian Canyons and the people who dwelled there. The spaciousness of the canyons transitions to segments covering periods of change, adaptation, and self-determination — the years when other people arrived, and the U.S. government provided free land to the railroad. Photos and newspaper clippings document decades during which the Tribe was boxed in, legally, financially, and geographically. Relief comes when the path opens into a large gallery with visuals of momentous legal victories and groundbreaking leadership, the turning points that enabled the Tribe to achieve self-sufficiency.
Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza.
PHOTO BY JOEY JARECKI
Shortly after the building’s construction began in 2018, the Tribe recovered thousands of archeological artifacts from the building site, including projectile points and stone tools, some of which are on display in an exhibit gallery titled Into the Future. Radiocarbon dating confirmed more than 8,000 years of Cahuilla habitation on the site.
The journey ends with another video montage. Faces and voices of Tribal members bring the visitor back to the present, introducing themselves as neighbors, coworkers, and residents of the Coachella Valley. Wall text bids you Áčaqun ehíčine, or “go in a good way,” a Cahuilla parting phrase.
See and hear the stories of the Agua Caliente people in this exhibit.
PHOTO BY DAN ESLINGER
To further enrich the Museum experience, Carolina Zataray, Manager of Education and Public Engagement, has created a full slate of programs, beginning with activities for schoolchildren on field trips.
Students will receive hands-on opportunities with a gourd rattle, learning how Tribal members shape cottonwood for the handles and harvest palm seeds to produce sound. Metates and manos, along with mortars and pestles, connect ancient food preparation techniques to the popular mesquite bars enjoyed at community events.
Activities for the public will include discussions about the building’s architecture, demonstrations of traditional basket weaving and games, and workshops about local plants and animals.
PHOTO COURTESY AGUA CALIENTE BAND OF CAHUILLA INDIANS
Adjacent to the lobby is the Changing Exhibition Gallery, approximately 2,200 square feet equipped to host a variety of presentations on Indigenous topics. Karr and museum staff are working with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian as well as other museums, tribes, and community curators to showcase traditional and contemporary Native art and culture.
The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum stands out as a clear, confident, unfiltered voice: This is who we are. Join us and learn about our past, present, and future.
PHOTO BY DAN ESLINGER
Shop the Native Creators
Kelli Davis has a cool job. She’s Manager of Retail and Visitor Services for the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, and she’s collaborating with Native American artisans from coast to coast, sourcing items that reflect the modern, style-conscious nature of the Greater Palm Springs area. She wants, in part, to appeal to customers who know Indian culture as something existing only in the past and introduce them to the playful, sophisticated, unique works being created today.
Along with jewelry, books, and custom merchandise, look for basketballs and skate decks with Northwest Coast symbols; scarves and serapes woven by Navajo makers; sweetgrass-scented lotions and body scrubs in travel-sized bottles; even marine collagen wellness drinks. Fine art includes paintings on vintage documents, a practice known as ledger art that began with the Plains Indians in the 19th century. Davis is particularly excited about artists who belong to multiple tribes and how they communicate their complex identities.
The museum shop features items made and designed by Native American artisans.
PHOTO BY DAN ESLINGER
A few local non-Native creators will be invited to participate, but Davis says the goal is to carry almost entirely Native-made, Native-designed, or Native-owned businesses — and perhaps encourage more people to create artwork through an Indigenous lens.
“The hope of the Museum is to be a spark to show other tribal communities how to do this,” Davis says. “It’s a blueprint.”
This story originally appeared in Me Yah Whae: The Magazine of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Fall/Winter 2023.