Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians
Through you, my ancient people, I am.
Mildred L. Browne
Chairwoman, Board of Directors
Agua Caliente Cultural Museum
The world began, we are told through our songs, with the creation of twin brothers, Mukat and Temayawet.
Through the power of the Creator, the brothers made tobacco, the sacred pipe, the six directions, and the earth. From the earth's colored clay they fashioned people - white, black, yellow, and red – and the animals, the rocks, and all aspects of the deserts and mountains. Mukat and Temayawet argued over whose creations were best. When the people they had created began to leave, Mukat grasped the red people and kept them with him. They became the Cahuilla people. This is the story of our people and the land we have walked since the beginning of time.
We Tell Two Stories
As Agua Caliente and as Cahuilla people, we tell two stories of who we are. One is spiritual and born of our ancient relationship with the desert lands of the Coachella Valley and the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains. The other is the story of our struggle to retain our lands and culture and shape our own destiny. Over the years these stories have intertwined to form who we are.
Today, the Cahuilla people span nine reservations across southern California, linked by a shared language yet distinguished by tribal identities forged by geography, culture, and law. As Agua Caliente, our identity is rooted in Palm, Murray, Andreas, Tahquitz, and Chino Canyons and is inextricably linked to the hot mineral springs considered sacred by our ancestors. It is in honor of these springs, called Se-khi (boiling water) in Cahuilla, that we eventually became known by the Spanish term for hot water, Agua Caliente.
At the Crossroads of Past and Future
Just fifty years ago our people made a decision that would shape our identity forever. With our language dying, our ceremonies fading and the younger generation leaving the old ways, the death of our Tribal leader brought the past and future together in a momentous way. The elders determined that there was no one left among us to serve as the people's teacher, to preside over meetings, rituals, rites of passage, and wield the power of the Um na'a as had been done since the creation of the world. They came to the painful decision that no one would be named as our new net and that the traditional ceremonial house would be burned. As fire engulfed the structure, so went many of our ancient ways. It was time, they said, to look to the future.
Knowing the World Brings Power
For thousands of years, knowledge given to us by the Creator, knowledge of the land, of relationships, and of the spirit world, has sustained our people. Knowledge of who we are keeps us connected to our past and sets the path for our future.
Understanding the World
From ancient times, oral traditions guided our people and gave them knowledge. These stories reflected a world filled with uncertainty and danger, where many powers created an order that we could not always see or understand. With the help of spiritual guides within the land, water, plants, and animals, we learned to adapt to these uncertainties and find our way in the world. In a land of varied climates, our people became sophisticated ecologists, developing complex agricultural and irrigation systems, understanding climate and star patterns, using hundreds of plants for food and healing. From the plants we also learned to create intricate and beautiful baskets woven so tightly they could hold water. The animals, which were part of the power of the world, provided us with food, tools, clothing, and blankets. We located our communities near the mouths of canyons and in valleys to maximize the use of natural resources. Trail systems connected us with neighboring tribes and bands, enabling us to trade with one another and to gather socially.
Obtaining New Knowledge
With the arrival of outsiders to our lands, we adapted to yet another way of life, acquiring the knowledge we needed to cultivate new crops and raise cattle, sheep, and horses. We encouraged our children to learn Spanish and later English, and to integrate new lifeways into our own as the white man's world surrounded us. We understood that with this knowledge came new forms of power. Today, we continue to value and respect the power of knowledge. As we move forward with plans for a new, expanded cultural museum we remain committed to the belief that knowledge is a tool for empowerment, autonomy, and the proper stewardship of our land and culture.
We Assert Our Right to Self-Determination
For many generations we lived in two worlds; one anchored in the ancient traditions passed down through songs and stories, the other appropriated from strangers who had come among us. While adaptation enabled us to survive, we learned that only through self-determination would we be able to shape our own destiny.
Arrival of the Outsiders
For a time after the Europeans entered our world, they remained at a distance from our communities. By the early nineteenth century, contact was made and some of our people went to their missions, were baptized, and were forced to work and live among them. Others escaped and returned home. Many of our people fell prey to new diseases and our population drastically declined. We resisted the power of the Spanish and the Mexicans by uniting with other Indian tribes.
Hunger for Indian Land
Despite our belief that this productive land of our ancestors would always be ours, by the mid-1800s much of it had been taken from us by American settlers. In the 1860s the federal government delivered yet another blow by giving ten miles of the odd-numbered sections of land on each side of the railroad right-of-way to the Southern Pacific Railroad to entice them to build through the area. Our protests, made with the support of Indian and non-Indian friends alike, were loud and powerful. At last, in the 1880s, we were deeded 32,000 acres of the even-numbered sections of the land establishing the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation.
Today, 10,700 acres of the reservation lie within the city limits of Palm Springs, while the remaining sections extend out in a checkerboard pattern to include portions of Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, and unincorporated Riverside County.
Survival through Adaptation
As we entered the twentieth century, our struggle for autonomy was far from over. Many of our children attended schools designed to eliminate their connection to their heritage and identity. They were no longer allowed to speak our language or perform the ceremonies that brought power into our world. Eventually, we could no longer sustain our old life of hunting and gathering. We began to work for white settlers on their ranches as cowboys, on their farms as laborers, and as domestics in their homes and hotels. We also became entrepreneurs, starting our own orchards, raising horses and cattle, and leasing our lands and properties to others.
Asserting Autonomy, Building Cooperation
As Palm Springs developed in the 1930s, governmental regulations prevented us from benefiting from the economic potentials of our own land. We were "land-wealthy" as a tribe; yet, many of our people lived in poverty. At last, in the 1950s, due to the political savvy of our Tribal Council (the first all-woman tribal council in the nation), justice prevailed.
We won progressive land lease legislation in Congress that enabled all tribes in the United States to promote their own economic development. Our tribal council also created our first by-laws and constitution, launching the Agua Caliente tribe as a modern-era business and political entity.
For the past several decades we have continued to assert our legal and traditional authority over the use, care, and economic viability of our lands. At the same time, we have shaped our world with increasing collaboration between our Tribal Council and local city and county governments.
A Changing Community in an Ever-Changing World
It was the traditions passed to us from Mukat that formed our community. As times have changed, so have we, but these traditions continue to guide our people.
Community through Tradition
The old ways told us our place in the world. Kinship, gender, age, special talents, and connections with the spiritual world determined status; and different leaders led different parts of community life. The net served as our ceremonial leader, tribal administrator, and judge, while the shaman, or pvuul, provided healing through the use of plants and spiritual powers. From birth to death, rituals affirmed our unity as a people, promoted order and continuity within the community, and kept us in touch with the sacred world. Boys and girls were brought into adulthood through ceremonies confirming their new power and responsibilities, and game playing refined young people's skills.
Everywhere in our traditional communities, giving and obligation were integral parts of our lives. Wagering offered lively entertainment, while music and dance were part of social and religious gatherings.
We passed our history and traditions from generation to generation through bird songs, which taught the stories of creation and the naming of all things of the earth, of natural events, and of the first people.
Change was forced upon us, causing us to create new ways of relating to each other and the broader community. This path of integration was difficult and led to painful individual and collective struggles. The burning of the Ceremonial House in the 1950s reminds us even now of the complexity of that struggle.
Today we continue that struggle and support the dreams and ambitions of our people through education and college scholarship programs, Tribal developments, businesses and investments, conservation of resources, and preservation of the natural environment — our homeland and traditional territory.
As contributors to the local economy and active participants in state and federal matters, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is also an essential part of life in Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. As neighbors, parents, business owners, and community leaders, we are part of a diverse and extended community across the region.
We Define Our Identity for the Future
What does it mean to be Agua Caliente? What does it mean to be Cahuilla? Who will we be in generations to come? Like all indigenous peoples, we face a multitude of challenges if we are to survive as a tribe and community. Thousands of years of history and culture are at risk. The test of our generation and the next will be to meet these challenges as our ancestors met those of their time.