Sharing the Sacred Water

Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza will connect past and present in a dynamic downtown Palm Springs experience. Here’s a preview.

March 12, 2020
Story by Susan Myrland
agua caliente cultural plaza
The Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza will serve as a gathering place for Tribal members, residents, and visitors and offer two main attractions.

In 1857, the 7.9-magnitude Fort Tejon earthquake, the largest in California’s recorded history, changed the flow of Tahquitz Creek. What had been a year-round water source dried up, flowing only during wet winters. In late 2020, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians opens its highly anticipated Cultural Plaza, which will make a comparable, but positive, impact on the region, as the healing Hot Mineral Spring water flows again and gives cultural tourism in Greater Palm Springs a healthy shot in the arm.

When it opens at the corner of Tahquitz Canyon Way and Indian Canyon Drive in downtown Palm Springs, the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza will be the second-largest Native American cultural center in the United States after the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City. It will serve as a gathering place for Tribal members, residents, and visitors and offer two main attractions: the 48,000-square-foot Agua Caliente Cultural Museum and at the 45,000-square-foot Spa a Séc-he. The Oasis Trail, an Indian Canyons-inspired pathway, winds between the two curvaceous structures. Here, the Washingtonia filifera palm trees, offer shade, and native plants, a meandering stream, and rock formations bespeak the experience to be found in the museum and spa, where the Tribe’s history, heritage, and wisdom come to life.

While references to the Tribe’s land and culture permeate the property, from the basket-starter shape of the museum to compressed-earth walls in the spa, the Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring is the heart and lifeblood of the plaza, Séc-he translates to “sound of boiling water” in Cahuilla, the Tribe’s ancestral language. When Tahquitz Creek stopped flowing year round in the mid 1850s, Séc-he sustained the people, united clans into a tribe, and allowed for the development of agriculture.


“This place is a source of great strength and power, not because of anything we can measure, but 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,” 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.

“This is something that they hold to be most sacred and yet they’re still willing to share it,” says Scott Celella, Principal and Chief Operating Officer of JCJ Architects, which collaborated with the Tribe to design the Cultural Plaza. “They have shared the waters for over 100 years. They have not been holding it for themselves. It’s a pretty amazing testimony to the people.”


The architects and designers approached every detail of the Cultural Plaza with wellness and healing in mind


A visit to the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum begins with the words, “Welcome to Our Home.” 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 story. Two of the narratives — how two brothers made people from clay of different colors, the quarrel that caused mountains to rise, the Moon Maiden, and the Great Blue Frog, who traveled to the edge of the ocean — will alternate every six months.

A flock of sculpted birds floats around a sinuous hallway to exhibits showing what life was like in the Indian Canyons and how they shaped clan society, including ceremonial practices and objects such as baskets and ollas (clay vessels used for seeds, food, and water). Audio and video explain how and why the Agua Caliente changed, adapted, and embraced self-determination, laying the groundwork for success now and in the future.


The Oasis Trail, an Indian Canyons-inspired pathway, is certain to be popular with guests.

Another section of the museum will feature rotating exhibits, classrooms, a meeting space, and screening room for films. Outside is a native plant garden where visitors can pause, reflect, and learn about traditional sources of food, medicine, and shelter.

Steven Karr, Ph.D, Executive Director of the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, says the goal of the museum is to first and foremost educate Tribal members and the community and visitors at large. Growing up in Southern California, he attended Mass at the Pala Indian Reservation in northern San Diego County. He learned early on that Southern California is Indian Country — not a culture that disappeared, or exists somewhere “out there” — but the land underneath today’s housing developments and shopping centers, and the routes that define today’s roads. That realization shaped his career and personal life in profound ways.


“I could help my Native American friends achieve goals for themselves and their communities, and part of that was educating the broader public awareness about who they are, what they’re about — helping tribal communities create institutions that are not just for the general public, but in fact teaching tools for their own community, for their youth.”

Karr emphasizes the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum is a community-curated project. “It’s the Tribe’s voice. It’s their story, and it’s being told the way they want it told. It’s focusing on elements that they believe are important.”

“It’s the Tribe’s voice. It’s their story, and it’s being told the way they want it told. It’s focusing on elements that they believe are important.”
— Steven Karr, Ph.D.,
Executive Director of the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum

The Spa at Séc-he will offer a variety of lounges, and an open-air tranquility garden where guests can rest between experiences.


The Spa at Séc-he joins the Cultural Museum to round out the plaza experience. The architects and designers approached every detail with wellness and healing in mind, from colors that reflect the desert, mountains, and sky to the top-of-the-line equipment and restorative therapies. Twenty-two private baths welcome guests to soak in the Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring waters, and 15 treatment rooms are dedicated to massage and skin care treatments. The state-of-the-art spa also offers salt caves using halotherapy, a cooling room, cryotherapy, mineral pools, hot tubs, eucalyptus steam rooms, dry saunas, two magnesium-based float pods, a salon, fitness center, and the wellness café.

Daniel Spencer, Director of Spa Services, says Séc-he offers a full-day sensory experience with opportunities to try something new and learn skills for healthier living. His philosophy of wellness comes from being diagnosed with scoliosis at a young age, requiring spinal fusion surgery.

“When I finally had a massage, it was the first time I felt the pain actually relieved, not just covered up,” Spencer says. “It changed my life.” He became a certified massage therapist in 1995 and went on to lead some of the top spas in California.

The Spa at Séc-he features quartz massage tables that create the sensation of being cradled in warm sand; gemstone mats made from jade, tourmaline, and amethyst; infrared heating pads; and innovative binaural sound therapy designed to put the brain into a calm state. The salon will offer “Head Spas,” Japanese scalp treatments based on Ayurvedic principles, and hot stone massages elevated through the use of unakite jasper, fluorite, and rose quartz “phoenix wings.” Visitors will be able to take home a vial of the gemstones used in their treatment.

The Spa also has a variety of lounges, zero-gravity “grounding” chairs, and an open-air tranquility garden where visitors can rest between experiences. Color, texture, and light interact with furniture created from recycled wood and windows that mirror the shapes of the surrounding mountain peaks. Rising above the lobby is a skylight based on a distinctive rock formation in Andreas Canyon.

The Tribe continues to demonstrate its stewardship of the life-giving water, eventually filtering the used water to remove contaminants and be sent back to the earth’s underground aquifer that sustains life throughout the entire Coachella Valley. .

This story originally appeared in MeYah Whae, The Magazine of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Spring/Summer 2020. To read the current digital edition, click HERE.