Agua Caliente Cultural Museum Shares Tribe’s Culture and History

In downtown Palm Springs, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has opened a new museum to share its ancient history and culture.

January 12, 2024
Story by Steven Biller
The museum features representations of Tahquitz, Palm, and Andreas canyons.
PHOTO BY STEVEN BILLER

For the past several years, Reid D. Milanovich, tribal chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, spoke of the tribe’s cultural plaza as “one of the most important achievements in Agua Caliente history.”

The 5.8-acre campus, bisected by a trail of natural beauty inspired by the Indian and Tahquitz canyons, sits atop the ancient Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring in downtown Palm Springs that has sustained the tribe since time immemorial. Today, the spring water feeds The Spa at Séc-he, the fifth and by far the grandest of the spas that have stood on this sacred site — and one of two distinctive venues anchoring the new plaza.

Projectile points unearthed from the tribe’s excavation of the cultural plaza site.

PHOTO BY ETHAN KAMINSKY

The other is the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, a curvaceous, 48,000-square-foot venue that winds like a traditional Cahuilla basket design through six galleries featuring exhibits that weave past and present.

When the plaza and museum opened with ceremony and celebration in November, the significance of Milanovich’s words resonated among the hundreds who gathered for the first look inside. They were reminded that purpose of the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza runs much deeper than the attractions and amenities it offers.

“This is for our tribal membership first and foremost,” Milanovich says, “and then a destination where we can share our story and culture and offer world-class experiences to guests from near and far.”

The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum is one of the largest museums operated by a tribe in the Unites States. Milanovich emphasizes that its galleries and exhibits allow the tribe to tell its story through its own voices, images, and objects.

Here’s an overview of the museum’s six galleries:

Our Home introduces the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and the eight other bands of Cahuilla Indians, as well as the Cahuilla territory.

Creation and Migration features a 360-degree projection of an immersive, 12-minute digital animation that tells an abbreviated version of the Agua Caliente creation and migration stories in a theater setting with seating that vibrates with the “thunder.”

Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.
PHOTO BY KATE ANDERSON, COURTESY AGUA CALIENTE BAND OF CAHUILLA INDIANS

Our Land explores the tribe’s ancestral lands through scaled replicas of the Indian Canyons and the tribe’s sacred hot mineral spring, Séc-he. “We draw strength from our spiritual and physical connection to this place,” a didactic panel reads. “It sustains us and makes us who we are.” Another panel adds, “The canyons provided protection and trade routes into the surrounding mountains. They offered food, water, medicine, and materials. We have a deep love and respect for the plants and animals with whom we share the canyons. These places remain a source of spiritual connection and healing for our people.” This gallery shows examples of ceremonial practices, material culture, and artistic expression — including ancient baskets, ollas, and an ancient mortar and pestle made of cottonwood and granite.

The Oasis Trail mimics the natural beauty of the Indian Canyons.
PHOTO BY KATE ANDERSON, COURTESY AGUA CALIENTE BAND OF CAHUILLA INDIANS

Change, Adaptation, Self-Determination showcases notable events in more recent Agua Caliente history by way of a timeline and audiovisual elements. “The arrival of non-Native people to our homeland began a difficult time of change,” the introductory wall panel reveals. “Our land and water were stolen, our people decimated by disease, our culture threatened and misunderstood.” The exhibits in this gallery reveal how the tribe adapted to survive.

Into the Future focuses on archeology, particularly the artifacts that were recovered during excavation for the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza, demonstrating the Agua Caliente people’s 8,000-year history in this region.

Changing Gallery presents exhibitions of traditional and contemporary Native American art. The inaugural exhibition, For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw, was organized by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. Poolaw was a Kiowa Indian photographer in the Southern Plains who documented Indian subjects from the mid-1920s to the 1970s. He photographed his friends and family and events important to them — weddings, funerals, parades, fishing, driving cars, going on dates, going to war, playing baseball. The exhibition continues through December 2024.

The museum will roll out programming for children and adults, beginning with hands-on activities such as making gourd rattles and a variety of workshops, discussions, and demonstrations featuring traditional basket weaving and native plants and animals.

“When we share our culture,” Milanovich says, “it helps preserve our culture.”

Guests exit through the gift shop to find a selection of original art, clothing (including Navajo scarves and sarapes), jewelry, books, and skin care and wellness products sourced from Native American artists and makers across the country.