agua caliente

Building on Water

How the Agua Caliente people survive and thrive with the greatest natural resource.

Mona de Crinis Current Digital, History

agua caliente
Crew working on Tahquitz Ditch circa 1909.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Pál. Agua. Water. It is essential to the survival of all earthly things. For centuries, it has been coveted, contained, sought after, and fought over.

In the Coachella Valley, where rainfall and snowmelt are fleeting, this precious element carries even greater weight. The Agua Caliente people, stewards of this land since time immemorial, venerated the fresh water that snaked through the canyons of the San Jacinto mountain range with the first breath of spring and bubbled from the ground steadfast as the rising sun.

These perennial springs and seasonal streams allowed the ancestors of the Agua Caliente people to survive in an otherwise seemingly inhospitable environment. The Cahuilla people, descendants of whom include the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, built thriving communities throughout the Palm Springs area centered around these sources, which offered clean, potable water for cooking, bathing, drinking, irrigation, and ceremony.

A naturally occurring hot spring, today known as the Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring in downtown Palm Springs, dispersed an uninterrupted cache of water and was the lifeblood of Tribal prosperity. A prominent feature in the Tribe’s creation story, the land around the spring was gifted to the Kauisik clan by Ca wis ke on ca, the Horns of the Fox, who led his people there and identified it as their home.

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PHOTOGRAPH BY TOM BREWSTER

West Fork Falls near Palm Canyon.

According to Cahuilla lore, they were at first apprehensive of the power of the spring as it was considered a portal to an underworld where the nukatem, or ancient sacred beings, lived.

“Nukatem are creatures that were created among the people of the First People,” explains Tribal member Moraino Patencio, who also serves as vice-chairman of the Agua Caliente Cultural Advisory Board. “The First People (we are considered the Fifth People) had closer relationships with and were more closely associated with the power of creation, so the beings in [the spring] were very powerful.”

The teachings of Menil, the Moon Maiden, encouraged those who were fearful to embrace the spring and its supernatural beings. “She taught them to respect and pay homage to the spring, but also to utilize it,” Patencio adds.

To appease these spirits and keep the clan safe, many would offer food and prayers prior to bathing while some sought out the nukatem for their other-worldly knowledge.

The Dream of the Blue Frog, which is currently on display at Palm Springs City Hall, vividly describes the magical properties of the spring and its magnetic attraction to tribal leaders and shaman.

“He was the primary being in the spring,” Patencio continues. “Another legend tells of one of our headmen descending into the spring to visit the nukatem in an effort to be healed and rejuvenated, and finally ended up finding the Blue Frog, who was able to not only cure him of his illnesses but give him a renewed life.”

As the hot spring evolved into the heart of Tribal life, bathing twice daily in the healing waters became into a commonplace tradition.

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY

United States Indian Service crew at Tahquitz Canyon Falls.

Cahuilla hunters in particular believed that hygiene was vitally important in washing away their scent, allowing them to approach prey with minimal detection.

A little farther west, a year-round stream fed by mountain springs and snowmelt flowed through Tahquitz Canyon, providing water for a village erected near the canyon’s mouth.

“With this water, we could basically grow anything we wanted to,” Patencio imparts. “But like most rivers, it sometimes changed course. It would move to the left or the right and disrupt the flow we depended on for water.”

In response to these periodic shifts in direction, the Tribe built the Tahquitz Ditch, a stone-lined ditch, in 1830 to redirect the water into a controlled flow. Improvements to the ditch continued over the next couple of decades as the whole rocks initially used were replaced with anamorphic split rocks derived through the application of fire and, later, the addition of irrigation control valves which still exist along Tahquitz Canyon’s west path leading up to the falls.

Engineering a system to divert naturally occurring surface water was instrumental in the Tribe’s agricultural pursuits, such as growing beans, squash, and corn.
“Corn figures prominently in our creation stories and our myths and legends,” Patencio continues. “We had corn and utilized corn. It was one of the things given to us when we killed Mukat, our creator, way back when.”

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY

The Bathhouse at the 
Agua Caliente Mineral Hot Spring.

Patencio reflects on the misguided attempts by archeologists and anthropologists who classified the desert Cahuilla as primarily hunter-gatherers.

“What they didn’t understand is that, number one, we were agriculturists and, number two, we had other sources of water rather than only rainfall,” he says. “We were going beyond what the natural environment could provide and were utilizing agricultural practices that are deeply set within our culture and mythologies.”

In 1857, the Great Fort Tejon Earthquake, which reportedly reversed the current of the Kern River, also pushed the Tahquitz Canyon stream underground, forcing the Agua Caliente people to work within the means of this new altered landscape.

The water table, which had been replenished regularly by the Tahquitz Canyon stream, was very high prior to the 1857 earthquake, notes Patencio, which allowed those living down-valley to access water easily by digging shallow wells.

“After the earthquake, the water table began dropping, and that’s when you saw Indian Wells and Torres-Martinez digging much deeper wells to obtain water,” he explains. “The Indian Wells example has since been covered over, but the Torres-Martinez well is still there.”

The Tribe adapted to this geographical event by relying more heavily on the Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring, which eventually became the site of several successive bathhouses, the iconic 1960s Spa Hotel, and the soon-to-be Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza, a multiuse complex featuring a museum and luxurious day spa that’s currently under construction.

Lauded for its healing qualities and high mineral content, the Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring remains one of the Tribe’s most hallowed natural resources. Not only is it the epicenter of the Tribe’s business ventures but, more importantly, the fountainhead of the Agua Caliente’s cultural identity.

According to Cahuilla lore, the spring was created when the first Headman Tu to meet, or Sungrey, thrust his who ya no hut, his staff of power, into the ground with such force it caused hot water cradled deep within the bowels of the Earth to rise to the surface.

“What they didn’t understand is that, number one, we were agriculturists and, number two, we had other sources of water rather than only rainfall.”Moraino Patencio, Tribal Member

“He named it Séc-he, meaning boiling water, which is up to the Earth and on the Earth, which is to be forever, never to dry up, never to go away, but to be there forever and always for the sick,” wrote Cahuilla elder Francisco Patencio in Stories and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians.

“He created the portal to our spiritual realm, which is connected to other spiritual realm portals that occur in the springs — it’s something that goes back to our ancient history and is reflected in our birdsongs that describe our migration and re-migration back here during the Ice Age,” Moraino Patencio expounds.

The Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring also holds wonder for scientists and geologists. Carbon-14 dating reveals that the water bubbling from the spring’s main orifice has not seen the earth’s surface since the end of the last ice age and is dated as 12,000 years old — older than the ages of the Sphinx and the Giza Pyramids combined. Results from a United States Geological Survey study released in 2011 confirm that the spring water comes from its own reservoir 8,000 feet below the San Jacinto Mountains. Unlike most local springs, it is not linked to the Coachella Valley aquifer — the desert’s main source of drinking water.

Protecting the Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring as well as other water sources on the Tribe’s ancestral lands remain a top priority for the Tribe, which maintains control of the water from Indian Canyons (Tahquitz, Murray, Palm, and Andreas canyons) and natural springs on Reservation land.

For decades, the Tribe has routinely monitored, collected, and analyzed Reservation water for quality and quantity. “How much water there was and whether it was being taken care of by local water districts has always been a primary focus,” explains Margaret Park, who has served as the Director of Planning and Natural Resources for the Tribe for the last 18 years.

“Over the last few generations, we’ve seen the water quality decline and have documented finding an increase in salts, or total dissolved solids, in the water,” she continues, “We’re seeing a gradually creep-up over the years, especially in the north end of the Reservation, from 250 milligrams per liter of total dissolved solids in ground water to 500 milligrams.”

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GRAPHIC COURTESY U.S GEOLOGICAL SURVEY

The source of water to the Agua Caliente Springs.

In 2013, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians filed suit in the U.S. District Court seeking for the Court to grant the Tribe senior water rights to groundwater in the Coachella Valley under federal law and to prevent local water agencies from impairing the quantity and quality of water in the aquifer.

Under federal law, when the United States established the Reservation, it reserved for the Tribe and its members water in sufficient quantity and quality to satisfy the present and future needs of the Tribe.

The brief argued that the Coachella Valley Water District and Desert Water Agency are recharging the aquifer with degraded water from the Colorado River that contains high amounts of total dissolved solids and other contaminants.

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Toro well with 
person at bottom, Indian Wells.

The recharge facility is located northwest of tribal land, resulting in a greater rate of groundwater degradation in the western Coachella Valley, including water below the Reservation, than in the aquifer down valley.

According to Park, this practice of recharging the aquifer with “dirty” water is one of the Tribe’s greatest concerns regarding the solvency and sustainability of water for future generations.

“With the litigation, the Tribe has taken a significant step towards exercising its own sovereign authority over the water,” Park says. “To lead water management for the Tribe, the Tribal Council created the Agua Caliente Water Authority.”

Formed in August 2019, the five-member board comprises a wealth of expertise, including attorneys versed in water and Tribal issues and leaders in engineering and water agency management.

According to Park, the Board’s role is to take on responsibility for the management of water on the Reservation including authorizing and issuing permits for water-related enterprises such as well digging, ground-water production, and providing formal comment on behalf of the Tribe with respect to regional water planning projects.

“The Tribe is concerned about the long-term availability of clean groundwater, and having abundant clean water is key to the economic wellbeing of the Tribe and the Reservation,” Park says. “This Board allows the Tribe to take a stronger role in the responsible management of the area’s water with an eye toward future generations.”

Viewing the Agua Caliente’s ancestral lands through the lens of geologic time is paramount in ensuring the survival of the Tribe, suggests Patencio.

“We’re looking at mountains moving and earthquakes, at streams changing and springs being turned on and off — things that happened either over millennia or the last few hundred years,” he explains. “This helps us prepare for the next hundred years and do what we can to preserve our life here, because this is who we are, and this is where we belong.”

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.