Cynthia Morris-Sotelo, a Desert Advisory Board member of the UC Master Gardeners of Riverside County.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY STUART FUNK
A half-acre of land, nestled at the corner of Frank Sinatra Drive and Cook Street in Palm Desert, is about to be transformed into a showpiece of Cahuilla knowledge.
Located at the University of California, Riverside–Palm Desert, the plot is in the early stages of becoming a Cahuilla garden and demonstration site, weaving native plants and natural habitats along interpretive trails that will tell the story of this area’s original people and culture.
This idea began as a seed for Cathedral City resident Susan Krings, a UC Master Gardener of Riverside County and director of the nonprofit DiHG Eco-Prise. Her organization focuses on establishing permaculture sites, which are areas that utilize the land and its resources in a sustainable, self-sufficient way, producing no waste.
In 2021, Krings was working toward her certification in the University of California Climate Steward program, a course in climate change education that empowers students to improve ecosystems and become engaged in their communities. During that program, Krings began designing a permaculture site at UCR
“I thought, this is something that could be done right here,” Krings says.
“We can show visitors how the original people of our valley lived and how they used these plants and what they did to survive such huge temperature swings.”
The site seemed fitting, as the Palm Desert campus serves as a hub for artistic, cultural, and scientific research and is the Coachella Valley home to the UCR Center for Conservation Biology. It’s also centrally located, making it easy for people all over the Coachella Valley to visit for special events and demonstrations.
That idea evolved into plans for a Cahuilla garden, drawing upon the practices of those who have been on this land since time immemorial. This is happening all over our rapidly changing world: In the face of climate change, scientists and conservationists are turning to “traditional ecological knowledge” (TEK), following the guidance of Indigenous people who already hold deep understanding of the environment.
Master Gardener Cynthia Morris-Sotelo, who serves on the advisory board of the garden project, says this will be an ideal educational tool. “We can show visitors how the original people of our valley lived and how they used these plants and what they did to survive such huge temperature swings.”
Bolstered by a generous grant from the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the Cahuilla garden will showcase TEK practices through plants that have multiple uses, including agave, mesquite, ocotillo, prickly pear, palm trees, and manzanita, and plants essential for baskets and textiles, such as deergrass, sumac, and juncus.
Signage will educate visitors about the propagation, care, and sustainable harvest of each plant, as well as how they are traditionally used. The garden will also serve as a habitat for birds, reptiles, and animals that are important to the Cahuilla people.
“It’s an enduring land acknowledgement to the first people of the Coachella Valley, showing our respect and gratitude to the past and current people who still walk among us today,” Krings says.
Beyond the garden itself, Krings and the garden planning committee hope to offer docent-led educational talks, workshops on weaving and pottery, demonstrations on Cahuilla tools and structures, and classes on sustainability and climate resilience.
“It’s important to have a true and honest representation of how the Cahuilla lived, not just a plaque, to remind us of history and to keep that lesson going,” Morris-Sotelo says.
By implementing Cahuilla knowledge into the garden’s landscape and demonstrations, it will provide knowledge about, Krings hopes, “how to be more productive with what
This story originally appeared in Me Yah Whae: The Magazine of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Fall/Winter 2023.