It’s been a long time in the making — since time immemorial, some would say — and, finally, the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza is ready to deliver on its mission: to preserve and share the culture, history, and ancestral land of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians for generations to come.
Located in downtown Palm Springs, the Cultural Plaza is situated at the site of the Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring, whose ancient water surfaces from a depth of a mile and a half. Historically, the spring provided the Tribe with water to drink, cook, bath, irrigate, and heal. Today, anchored by the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum and The Spa at Séc-he, a world-class venue uniquely tuned to the wellness benefits of the sacred Hot Mineral Spring, the site remains the heart and soul of Agua Caliente heritage and identity.
“This place is a source of great strength and power,” Tribal Member Moraino Patencio said at the 2015 dedication of the new hot mineral spring collection ring, which was originally installed in 1953 to capture and protect the water, “because of the way it has interacted with our people, and the way it has strengthened our connection with the people who came before us, with our environment, and with the way that it’s brought our Tribe together.”
Indeed, the site of the Hot Mineral Spring was once — and will be again — a gathering place for Tribal members.
Here is an insider’s view on how the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza — one of the largest Native American cultural centers in the United States — came to life and what you can expect during your visits.
The Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring is the nucleus of Tribal life, yet there was precious little ethnographic record for the site of Séc-he, which in the Cahuilla language refers the sound of boiling water.
“This is one of the most important projects in our Tribe’s history,” Tribal Chairman Reid D. Milanovich said. “This project is for our Tribal membership first and foremost, and then, we have an opportunity to share our story with people in this community and around the world.”
Construction of the Cultural Plaza — which began on May 11, 2018 — presented an opportunity to literally dig into the site’s history. The Agua Caliente Historic Preservation Office assigned cultural monitors to observe the process, scour the moving dirt, and recover any artifacts. Soon thereafter, monitors found unusually dark patches of soil containing what appeared to be a hearth feature, remnants of a human-made fire. Patricia Garcia, the Tribe’s Director of Historic Preservation, called on Statistical Research Inc. (SRI) to further investigate. The Redlands, California–based firm determined that an intact archaeological site could be deeply buried there. This instigated test excavation units and test trenching, which found that the deposit was about 3 to 4 feet thick.
Construction paused, and Garcia drafted a proposal that Tribal Council approved for a comprehensive investigation of the area that ultimately led to a massive excavation and recovery at the site. Tribal government staff, cultural monitors and Tribal members worked with SRI on a sophisticated, GIS-guided excavation and data recovery.
- READ MORE: Look back at the groundbreaking.
The results were stunning to the Tribe and the researchers. They had recovered thousands of artifacts — metates, manos, shell beads, projectile points — and features, mostly hearths, that were buried more than 10 feet beneath the surface for millennia. Lab analysis indicated evidence of seeds and plant materials that reveal the vegetation, wildlife, and even wood elements that the Agua Caliente ancestors cultivated. Likewise, shells and beads show evidence of trade with tribes from the Pacific and Gulf coasts, and beyond.
“It’s truly remarkable the artifacts that we were able to recover from the site,” Chairman Milanovich said. “The process is one of the largest Indigenous archeological artifact recoveries ever done in this area. This type of opportunity is once in a lifetime, and the Tribe has learned so much.”
The artifacts remain with the Tribe and some will be displayed at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum to help create a full picture of the legacy that is Séc-he.
The Spa at Séc-he
The Hot Mineral Spring — the lifeblood of the Tribe and the Cultural Plaza — is best experienced in one of the 22 private baths fed by its soothing mineral waters at The Spa at Séc-he.
The state-of-the-art wellness destination also offers 15 massage and skin care treatment rooms, mineral pools, hot tubs, eucalyptus steam rooms, dry saunas, two magnesium-based float pods, salt caves (using halotherapy), cryotherapy, a salon, a fitness center, and a café.
Visitors can enjoy a full-day sensory experience with opportunities to “try something new and learn skills for healthier living,” said Director of Spa Services Daniel Spencer, who discovered massage after being diagnosed with scoliosis at a young age. He had spinal fusion surgery, and massage relieved his pain and inspired him to become a certified massage therapist and work at a few of California’s top spas. “It changed my life.”
The Tribe collaborated with JCJ Architects on the design of the Cultural Plaza in a way that welcomes visitors to appreciate the land and “taking of the waters.” The Tribe attended to every detail with wellness and healing in mind. Quartz massage tables, for example, create a sensation of being cradled in warm sand. Meanwhile, innovative features and treatments — such as zero-gravity “grounding” chairs and binaural sound therapy designed to put the brain into a calm state — will surprise and satisfy visitors.
Guests can also relax in a skylighted tranquility garden.
Agua Caliente Cultural Museum
“Welcome to Our Home.” These words will greet visitors to the new, 48,000-square-foot Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, which showcases the historical aspects of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians as well as the emerging work of contemporary Native American artists, including exhibitions on loan from the National Museum of the American Indian through a partnership between the Tribe and the Smithsonian Institution.
The goal of the Cultural Museum is to first and foremost educate Agua Caliente Tribal members and the community and visitors at large.
“We are eager to share our new cultural museum with visitors from around the world,” Chairman Milanovich said. “For us, it’s a dream come true that has been in the making for about 30 years. When we share our culture, we preserve our culture.”
To that end, almost 10,000 square feet of permanent exhibit space will be dedicated to the Tribe’s collection of art and artifacts as well as a 360-degree animation theater telling the Creation and migration stories. The exhibits hint at what life was like in the Indian Canyons and how the Cahuilla people shaped clan society, ceremonial practices, and cultural objects such as baskets and ollas. Multimedia presentations show how the Agua Caliente Tribe changed, adapted, and embraced self-determination.
Most importantly, the Cultural Museum presents Agua Caliente history on its own terms. “It’s the Tribe’s voice,” says Executive Director Steven Karr. “It’s their story, and it’s being told the way they want it told.”
Other spaces will feature changing exhibits, classrooms, and a screening room. Outside, a native plant garden gives visitors a moment to reflect and learn about traditional sources of food, medicine, and shelter.
Terrazzo flooring is installed in several steps. The cement dividers are in the shape of a basket design that will be featured in The Spa at Séc-he.
PHOTO BY ANTHONY W. PURNEL
Rounding Out the Plaza
Symbols of Agua Caliente culture are embedded in the architecture and design elements of the Cultural Plaza. Throughout both the Spa and Museum buildings, for example, the bespoke terrazzo floors feature traditional basket designs. Basket weaving was integral to Cahuilla life as a rite of passage (elders presented young Tribal members with baskets when they came of age), for practical use, and for trade. The baskets share stories of the Cahuilla people through their iconography of plants and animals, particularly birds and snakes. The design for the terrazzo floor took inspiration from baskets selected by the Agua Caliente Tribal Council from the Tribe’s own collection.
Likewise, the Cultural Plaza’s outdoor spaces — particularly the Oasis Trail, which meanders through the sprawling campus between the Spa and Museum — reflect the beautiful and tranquil nature of the Agua Caliente territory. The Oasis Trail features many of the winsome attractions of the nearby Indian Canyons, home to the world’s largest palm oasis, and Tahquitz Canyon, including Washingtonia filifera palm trees, which offer shade, and a variety of native plants, a calming stream, and otherworldly rock formations.
“For us, this is home. We have been here since time immemorial,” Chairman Milanovich said. “The Tribe has been sharing our home, which is now known across the world as Palm Springs, for more than 130 years. The opening of the Cultural Plaza allows us to be able to continue the tradition of sharing our sacred hot mineral water, and now our history and culture, with the world, all in one place in downtown Palm Springs.”
Inside and out, the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza is a destination where Tribal members, residents, and visitors can gather, heal, relax, socialize, learn, eat, and shop while being enveloped by the history, heritage, and wisdom of the
Agua Caliente Tribe.
This story originally appeared in Me Yah Whae: The Magazine of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Spring/Summer 2023.
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