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Agua Caliente Cultural Museum

Agua Caliente Cultural Museum

The state-of-the-art facility in downtown Palm Springs helps preserve tribal traditions and connects the ancient past to the present day

While most museums only tell stories of the past, the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in Palm Springs, slated to open in 2023, intends to do something more. As the museum brings alive thousands of years of Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians history, it connects those traditions to the tribe’s vibrant, modern existence in the Coachella Valley and to future generations.

The museum is a major component of downtown Palm Springs’ 5.8-acre Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza, the country’s second-largest Native American cultural center. Unlike such California institutions as the State Indian Museum in Sacramento and the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, both of which take an intertribal approach to Native American history, the Agua Caliente center has a specific focus on this tribe that has lived in and around Palm Springs for thousands of years.

At the project’s groundbreaking, U.S. Representative Raul Ruiz said, “The Cahuilla people have inhabited the Coachella Valley since time immemorial. Their creation story starts right here. This is their Garden of Eden.”

Few visitors to Palm Springs have a sense of the deep history of the area’s indigenous people, and a big part of the museum’s mission is to raise awareness and foster an appreciation of the Agua Caliente band’s remarkable heritage. But even more importantly, the cultural center was created for the Agua Caliente people themselves to help preserve tribal traditions and legends that might otherwise be lost for later generations.

For the Agua Caliente, this center has many roles. It’s a teaching tool for young people, a cultural resource for adults, and a gathering place that can inspire pride.  As Steven Karr, the museum’s executive director, said, “We are working to help the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians fulfill its goal of building and operating a museum for their own community…This is important as more and more Native American communities throughout the United States are anxious to tell their own stories in their own voices.”

And here, at this striking new facility, you will literally hear those voices: Screens in the museum show interviews with Agua Caliente tribal members as they describe the significance of their culture from a deeply personal perspective. 

The Museum Experience

Built of natural stone, the museum features a striking contemporary design inspired by the Agua Caliente’s basketmaking tradition. A circular structure is a visual metaphor for a partially woven basket, with curving walls emanating from the round design that are intended to suggest strands of fibers. The Agua Caliente are known for their crafts, including baskets and and ollas (clay storage vessels), and the museum displays an exquisite collection of tribal artistry.

The museum takes visitors on a thematic, non-chronological journey through the world of the Agua Caliente, with a main 10,000-square-foot exhibition space that introduces visitors to different aspects of the tribe’s story. Visitors can experience tribal creation and migration stories during a 10-minute, 360-degree digital animation presentation that’s projected onto the wraparound walls of a state-of-the-art theater.

One exhibit focuses on the natural world of the Agua Caliente, most notably the famed Indian Canyons and their oasis-like stands of California fan palms. And in an intriguing twist, the museum waits until the final exhibit to take visitors all the way back into the Agua Caliente’s ancient world.

Such archaeologically focused displays would typically be the first that visitors encounter in a museum, most of which are organized chronologically. But the tribe opted to tell the story of its culture in a manner where the past is not treated as so distinct from the present. Indeed, the cultural plaza itself is a reminder of that continuity because this modern cultural complex is physically connected to one of the tribe’s significant prehistoric sites.

During the excavation and construction excavation process, tribal archaeological monitors were on hand to ensure that any unearthed artifacts would be preserved. As it turns out, they discovered a rich trove of items—spear and projectile points, grinding stones and tools, and clam and abalone shell beads. Carbon dating of these items suggests that the human presence at the site dates as far back as 8,200 years ago, which was much earlier than previously believed. Now, after being buried for thousands of years, many of these objects are going on display as part of the museum’s permanent collection.

The cultural plaza also encompasses sacred hot springs, where waters believed to be 12,000 years old bubble to the surface. From the museum, the plaza’s Oasis Trail, a path with flowing water, boulders, and towering California fan palms that recreate the setting of the nearby Indian Canyon oases, leads from the museum to The Spa at Séc-he (Sound of Boiling Water). With 22 private baths, as well as pools, here you can quite literally immerse yourself in the ancient world of the Agua Caliente as you soak in mineral waters fed from 8,000 feet underground by the very hot springs that gave the tribe its name.

The spa emphasizes nature-based therapies, including salt caves for halotherapy and eucalyptus steam rooms, and has an outdoor tranquility garden that allows guests to bask in the warm, rejuvenating desert air.

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