Indigenous cultures vary dramatically …
With the lush Pacific northwest differing dramatically from the arid deserts of interior California, it’s not surprising that over the millennia indigenous people from the two regions have developed differently. Recently I had the opportunity to observe the Agua Caliente Band of the Cahuilla Indians in the Palm Springs valley and couldn’t resist comparing their culture to that of the Natives of British Columbia.
Like all indigenous peoples, both groups suffered severely from colonialization. The Agua Caliente (a sovereign tribal government), however, have made a remarkable recovery economically, and are likely the wealthiest native band in California, and probably all of North America, with many quality real estate investments. One reason may be that they were granted 31,500 acres of land in 1876 and 1877, and were not subsequently driven from it. Another reason is astute leadership.
The Band, with more than 500 members, has built two casinos, two championship golf courses and an ambitious cultural center is under construction. A large new entertainment center is planned for Cathedral City.
The Agua Caliente and most American tribes place high emphasis on casinos, largely because the government has ceded them a virtual monopoly. Canadian First Nations favour cultural centres, which they see as celebrating and perpetuating their indigenous culture.
The Band is well known for its philanthropy and supporting the community. As US Representative Raul Ruiz recently said, the Agua Caliente “have contributed so much to our region, to our economy and to our culture …
They’re good neighbours. They’re good citizens. They’re good friends.
On May 22, 2018, ground was broken for an enormous project in downtown Palm Springs, California. Slated for opening in 2020, this will be the Cultural Center Museum and Spa & Bathhouse. Truly a megaproject, it will be the largest Native cultural center in the state, consisting of two centrepieces: a museum showcasing the heritage of the Band and a spa & bathhouse on the hot mineral spring for which the city is named and which has played such an integral role in the tribe’s history. In addition, the 5.8-acre site will have an outdoor gathering plaza and a trail meandering between the museum and spa.
It is a grand vision. As Jeff Grubbe, Tribal Chairman since 2012, said, “Our goal is that this become a world-class destination and welcomes both visitors and locals alike to explore our rich culture and traditions.”
The Cultural Center also reflects on the Agua Caliente’s difficult past. “That’s why this museum is so important to us,” said Grubbe, “to correct the history we had, my people had, and to correct the history that this country and this state have had. This museum is not only going to be about us; this is really about all Indian people in this country.”
As the Museum will describe, the Agua Caliente history extends for at least 6,000 years. The Cahuilla Indian name for the area was Sec-he (boiling water); the Spanish named it Agua Caliente (hot water). Finally came the name “Palm Springs” in reference to both the native palm tree and the hot springs.
Cahuilla communities thrived in the valley and surrounding canyons with an abundant water supply yielding crops of melons, squash, beans and corn. Traditional crafts included basket weaving and pottery. The ceremonial life of the Agua Caliente included elaborate ceremonies marking important milestones in life. The Hot Spring was central to the way of life providing clean water, a place for bathing, and a connection with a spiritual underworld populated by nukatem, or ancient sacred beings. The waters were also utilized for healing purposes. The new Cultural Center will remember and honour these traditions.
I attended the Band’s second Kewet (meaning Fiesta), a Native American Learning Day and Market. Under a cobalt-blue sky, singers sang and danced. The beat was kept by rattles, hollow gourds filled with dried palm seeds, instead of the drums used in Canada. Numerous crafts were on display with basket weaving particularly prominent. I even shot a bow and arrow and threw a boomerang-type stick. Interestingly, pottery, which is uncommon in western Canada, is a mainstay for the Agua Caliente. The regalia of the dancers was simpler than the elaborate masks, button blankets and head-dresses of west coast natives.
Like in Canada, the Agua Caliente are striving to revive their language. Not only did several singers and speakers proudly use their native tongue, but Bingo was being called in Cahuillian.
A day later I hiked Tahquitz Canyon, a National Historic Place, and site of great pride for the Agua Caliente. The canyon was like an open-air museum with pictograms, house pits, mortar-and-pestle holes ground into the rock, many kinds of cactus and the remnants of the irrigation ditch built in 1830 to bring water to the village. Unfortunately, the splendid waterfall was dry, a victim of the current drought. I was impressed and, OK, frightened, by the Legend of Tahquitz, the first shaman, who started good but eventually turned against the Agua Caliente people. He was banished to this canyon, and the occasional rumbling of the mountains and shaking of the ground are all attributed to his angry powers. Although familiar with supernatural creatures, who are also an integral part of Pacific west coast native culture, I walked with care.