The Oasis Trail, a meandering path between the museum and spa at the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza in downtown Palm Springs, re-creates the natural beauty of the Tribe’s ancestral home in the Indian Canyons.
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY AGUA CALIENTE BAND OF CAHUILLA INDIANS

Fluttering in the fronds high above the trails of the Indian Canyons, a raven scans for food and roadrunners climb into thatch after lizards. The large desert dove coos with her plaintive sound as quail call and scratch for grubs below. Life comes into the palm oasis, congregating for water. In the morning and the evening, cottontails move in for sustenance, the coyotes lurking in the shadows with bobcats scanning prey from ledges high above. The palms are trees of life in the desert, for little can live without their shelter, and the beans of mesquite groves tucked into pockets in canyon walls ensures plentiful food for all.

Through the physical re-creation of these elements of the Indian Canyons, a few miles away in downtown Palm Springs at the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza, the Oasis Trail captures the essence of the Indian Canyons in a smaller, urban setting, evoking the importance of the trails that connect water and food sources in the desert and within the base of the San Jacinto Mountains.

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Pathways landscaped with desert plants and replicas of ancient Agua Caliente shelters are among the design elements that capture the essence of the Tribe’s ancestral home and bring the cultural plaza to life.

Trails are sacred to the people who know how easily they can vanish in desert wind and floods. Thus maintaining them for eons became a spiritual act that ensured life-saving pedestrian connectivity for future generations.

The Oasis Trail demonstrates the sequestered nature of Palm and Andreas canyons, cool, water-filled areas that provided comfortable living in the hot summers for the Agua Caliente people.

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It’s also the origin of trails that snake off to the Indian Potrero or high in the mountains for summer gathering of pinyon nuts. Tried and tested by those who traveled far and often, this language of place, where the people’s nomadic roots are laid down became foundations of life in a harsh, desert climate.

This is the true essence of the landscape recreated at the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza.

In the Indian Canyons, the primal sound of the stream echoing off adjacent walls draws us deeper into shade, where the people lived upon the soft sand since time immemorial. Here, we are protected from the dry desert wind by vertical cliffs dotted with barrel cactus and dripping with moisture in the winter. It is the source of the essence of a people: the palms and the very earth they stand upon. Here, ancestors were born and died, leaving behind every spirit that has passed to whisper to their children and grandchildren, voices carried into the future by Palm Canyon’s south winds to preserve, protect, and celebrate.

The water brings grasses, which in turn beckon deer and bighorn sheep into the oasis. The grasses provide easy tinder, stuffing and basket weaving materials for the people. They are tall bunch grasses with deep roots that live long wherever there is consistent moisture to sustain them

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Visitors to the canyons see such cultural sites as this kish, a dwelling made from palm fronds.

The Oasis Trail is for wandering, to slow modern day’s fast-paced reality and reflect on the Agua Caliente people. Living within a kish composed of mesquite poles and palm thatch beside the water way, its rafters are stuffed with ephedra needles for medicinal tea and the floors strewn with white sage leaves to drive away insects.

Nearby is the fire for cooking and the making of implements — the center of the canyon home where transformations take place and stories are told of the Cahuilla origins in Tahquitz Canyon. Generations gather here in the times of harvest, when the yucca fruit matures and the fibers are extracted for cords and weaving. In early summer, they share the succulent cactus fruit and dig sedge roots for baskets under the waning moon.

When coming of age ceremonies were held, the great white sacred datura was used in the rite of passage. Used by leaders for millennia, it is for both medicine and divination as part of the ancient need to connect with the ancestors. These great white trumpets open before dawn to welcome large dark hummingbird moths to pollinate.

Everywhere there are stone hearths where each family prepared food. Flat top boulders used as work surfaces are often discovered with chips of local chert and quartz. Here, they chiseled stone into weapons for hunting the wildlife with respect and gratitude for their contribution to the survival of the people.

Hammerstones are often found nearby to crush the catclaw acacia beans and palm fruits. Where bedrock is present, the deeper mortars and pestles demonstrate dependence on seeds, nuts and the starchy flour they produce. Everywhere stones collected for their size, shape, and heft became a convenient supply of tools for every endeavor at one’s fingertips.

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Many rock mortars found in the canyon, like this one, were once used by the Agua Caliente people long ago to prepare food and remedies.

Hammerstones are often found nearby to crush the catclaw acacia beans and palm fruits. Where bedrock is present, the deeper mortars and pestles demonstrate dependence on seeds, nuts and the starchy flour they produce. Everywhere stones collected for their size, shape, and heft became a convenient supply of tools for every endeavor at one’s fingertips.

At the start of the Oasis Trail will be a basket design within the paving that has become a tribal symbol. Of all the crafts of California tribes, basket-making most defines them. Thus the visitor is greeted with this emblazoned upon the ground plain itself in mammoth scale to integrate each guest into this cultural creation. Blending the water jets into the basket design brings the universal value of water in the desert to the forefront of this urban experience of a remote place.

The Oasis Trail is the synthesis of Palm Canyon elements constructed in contemporary terms using the vernacular of the ancients: earth, rock, plants, animals, and water. It is also a gift of healing waters to the world, but these healing waters are for more than health.

This is a sacred spring, a gift allowing everyone, not only a select few, to step into these sacred waters for healing. The Oasis Trail divides the spa and the museum and blends health and history for a dual influence on all who visit. It sets the stage for the baskets, pottery, and other artifacts from Agua Caliente history and lore in the museum.

Experience the sounds and sights, the quiet, and the contrast within this extraordinary re-creation of the heart of a people. They open this experience for all to learn, relax, and heal and to revere desert culture. Such a journey to prehistoric times in a town known for its modern architecture becomes a testament to the pricelessness of human habitat, tradition, and culture.

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2021-2022 edition of Me Yah Whae, a publication of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. To view the digital edition, click HERE.