In 2018, a couple of months after breaking ground on the new Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza in downtown Palm Springs, California, tribal monitors made an unexpected discovery: thousands of buried artifacts, some dating back more than 8,400 years.
“It was an inspirational moment,” recalls Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians Tribal Chairman Reid D. Milanovich. “It solidified the fact that our ancestors have been here for so long. You can see the proof with your own eyes. It’s not far underneath your feet.”
Five years later, the stone tools, projectile points, and shell ornaments recovered from the construction site are among the treasures on display at the new Agua Caliente Cultural Museum. While Palm Springs is best known as a haven for Mid-Century Modern architecture and vacationing Hollywood stars, the Agua Caliente Band has called this area home for thousands of years, with a reservation being established here in 1876. The 48,000-square-foot museum allows them to share their history, in their own words.
“There are certain points of our history that have been left out or pushed aside,” Milanovich says. “When we were thinking about the museum, it was important that you only see our faces and hear our voices. It’s not someone else telling the tribe’s story—we are telling our story.”
The guest experience begins in the theater, with a 360-degree projection of a 12-minute animated film that details the Cahuilla creation story, in which a pair of twin gods, Mukát and Témayawet, crafted the earth, oceans, sky, and humanity. (The film shortens a version of the tale that was documented nearly 100 years ago by tribal elder Francisco Patencio.) Upon exiting, visitors will find replicas of the Agua Caliente people’s ancestral canyons, with displays illustrating various aspects of native life here through the centuries. The history lesson isn’t limited to ancient times, either: A room-size timeline details modern milestones, such as the election of the first all-women’s tribal council in the 1950s and the opening of the first Agua Caliente spa-resort-casino in the 1960s. (One of Milanovich’s favorite pieces is Blue Lighting, the tribe’s first slot machine.)
The museum is just one aspect of the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza, which is built on the site of Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Springs, known as Séc-he in the Cahuilla language. Among the experiences available at The Spa at Séc-he is the Taking of the Waters ceremony, during which guests can soak in the ancient spring’s water for 15 minutes. The spa and museum are connected by the outdoor Oasis Trail, where visitors can see native plants, a recreation of a traditional Agua Caliente dwelling, and rock formations and water features inspired by the nearby Indian Canyons and Tahquitz Canyon.
“It’s been a vision for more than three decades,” Milanovice says of the project, “so to see it come to life is a real sense of accomplishment. I can’t wait for visitors to come here and experience our story for themselves.”