The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in Palm Springs has been open since November. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

It’s a safe bet that most casinos outside of Nevada are owned by an Indian tribe. Such is the case in the greater Palm Springs area where there are three casinos.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, though, has a larger investment beyond those gaming venues. In fact, 6,700 acres of the reservation’s approximately 31,500 total acres are within the city limits of Palm Springs.

Their land in the western Coachella Valley also encompasses parts of Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, and unincorporated areas of Riverside County. Some of this is prime hiking country.

I was put off at first that I had to pay $12 to hike in the Tahquitz Canyon. Then it dawned on me that the tribe isn’t getting any taxpayer dollars to operate; unlike national, state, county and city owned parks. And many of those parks have an entrance fee as well.

Metate and pestles estimated to be between 7,300 and 8,400 years old were unearthed during construction of the museum and hot springs. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Money was exchanged as I hiked in another Indian canyon as well. So be it. It was worth it.

What I learned from friends is that the Indians own the land under some of their homes—condos and single-family residences. This means they are paying monthly or annual lease payments. Leases cannot be longer than 99 years.

“There are 1,175 commercial leases, 7,671 residential subleases and 11,118 time shares on Indian land leases under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs-Palm Springs Agency,” according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The tribe’s newest endeavor is the 48,000-square-foot Agua Caliente Cultural Museum that opened last month in downtown Pam Springs.

In addition to the museum, the 5.8 acre Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza features the Spa at Séc-he that is an ode to the tribe’s ancient hot mineral spring, a Gathering Plaza, and an Oasis Trail. (Séc-he is the Cahuilla term for “the sound of boiling water”.)

Displays tell the chronological history of the tribe. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

A trip to the museum ($10 for adults) starts with a 12-minute movie that explains the origins of the tribe. While about only 500 members of the tribe exist today, their history dates thousands of years.

Ancient and more current history fill the space. While most items are permanent, a gallery is for rotating exhibits. The current display is photographs by Horace Poolaw who as a member of the Kiowa tribe had access to the native people of Oklahoma.

The museum is extremely educational. It would be easy to go back multiple times to keep learning. In many ways there was too much to absorb in one trip.

I learned those canyons I was hiking in weren’t routes of recreation for the Indians.

“Our ancestral home includes a series of canyons directly west of Palm Springs in the foothills of the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains. The canyons provided protection and trade routes into the surrounding mountains,” one sign says. “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.”

For those who aren’t into hiking, replicas of the canyons are part of the museum.

Obviously, the story of any tribe in the United States cannot be fully told without understanding what white people did to them.

“The arrival of non-native people to our homeland began a difficult time of change. Our land and water were stolen, our people decimated by disease, our culture threatened and misunderstood. Determined to survive, we adapted to the new society around us,” reads another panel.

One section is titled “Change: 1770-1903”. This was the first time I had heard of the Treaty of Temecula. Some things just make me keep hating this country.

“After the Treaty of Temecula was purposefully ignored by the U.S. Congress, a much smaller reservation was established in 1876 in coordination with land grants to the transcontinental railroad, which passed directly through our land. Alternate sections of one-square mile, creating a checkerboard pattern, were granted to the Southern Pacific Railroad and to our reservation as part of the agreement. In 1877, our reservation expanded to its current dimensions.”

“Adaptation” is what the period from 1912-42 is called. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 “granted citizenship to all native people in the United States. We were the last Americans to receive these rights. Our voting rights continued to be restricted in many states.”

How ignorant of me to never even think about the citizenship of Indians. To think it will only be 100 years in 2024 and that this country will be 248 years old next year.

Photographs of Horace Poolaw are the first special exhibit at the museum. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Even after citizenship was granted the government continued to screw the Indians.

“The federal government assigned non-native conservators to manage our finances. Taking much of our income and property for themselves, conservators restricted our ability to advance economically and politically,” reads another sign from the 1950s-60s. The conservatorships were abolished in 1968.

“Self-determination” marks the era from 1950-today.

The “into the future” segment says, “Today we are thriving and working hard to protect our land and water. We teach our children to understand and respect their past while embracing the opportunities of the future. That depends, as it always has, on respecting and preserving our ancestral lands. While building this Cultural Plaza, we found artifacts thousands of years old right here where you are standing. They remind us that our people have been here since time immemorial and will be here evermore.”

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