Cahuilla Band of Indians chairman discusses the tribe’s new museum and spa and what they discovered during construction
A rendering of the exterior of the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum — Photo courtesy of The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.
This year, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians will open the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza on sacred, tribal ground in the heart of Palm Springs. The plaza will house one of the largest Indigenous cultural museums in the country, an interpretive garden and The Spa at Séc-ha — the only spa in the Coachella Valley with a mineral hot spring. The spa is slated to open in early April, and the museum later in the year.
Among other feature and amenities, The Spa at Séc-ha will offer private mineral baths and treatment rooms, a resort-style mineral pool with four Jacuzzis, luxury cabanas, a full-service salon, a cafe and a poolside bar with food service. The new museum will boast 48,000 square feet of gallery space and educational programs.
We spoke with tribal Chairman Reid Milanovich about the new Palm Springs destination and the tribe’s surprising archaeological discoveries during construction.
Reid Milanovich serves as chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians Tribal Council — Photo courtesy of The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians
Why did the tribe decide to build the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza?
Mr. Milanovich: We built it because when we share our culture, it helps preserve our culture. This project has been in the works for decades and ultimately realizes the dream of the tribe telling our own story through our own voice.
Why is the location of the plaza important?
Mr. Milanovich: The plaza has been built at the site of our hot mineral spring, which has always been at the heart of tribal life. The water bubbling up today from this ancient spring last saw the earth’s surface more than 12,000 years ago, dating back to the end of the last ice age! These lands, as well as nearby Tahquitz Canyon and Indian Canyon, have been home to our ancestors for thousands of years, which explains why it’s essential to our history, traditions and ceremonial life.
Also, from a practical perspective, the plaza is located only five minutes driving distance from Palm Springs airport, in the heart of downtown Palm Springs, which will make it easily accessible for visitors.
What is most notable about the new museum?
Mr. Milanovich: The museum will allow us to tell our creation story and share our traditions — both within and beyond our tribe. It will celebrate the surrounding desert and mountain landscapes and parts of our culture, such as our beautiful basket designs. Most importantly, though, it will connect our most ancient history to the modern life we live today. This connection was reinforced when we discovered important ancient tribal artifacts during the construction process.
Tribal member Savana Saubel of The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians collects samples from an artifact — Photo courtesy of The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians
Can you tell us more about the discovery of these ancient artifacts during construction?
Mr. Milanovich: Less than two months into construction, in 2018, cultural monitors from the Agua Caliente Historic Preservation Office identified what is known as a hearth feature from a human-made fire. It was about 10 feet down in the Earth’s surface. As a result, we suspended construction and conducted a six-month artifact recovery mission to retrieve over a thousand items once used by our ancestors.
It was one of the largest indigenous archaeological recoveries centered on tribal values. Tribal members volunteered to help sort excavated materials in the field and assisted with retrieving samples in the lab for radiocarbon dating. Of course, many of these items will be on display in the museum.
Tell us about the hot spring and the role it has played in the development of Palm Springs.
Mr. Milanovich: As I mentioned earlier, the Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring is the heart of our tribal life and has been a place of sacred importance for generations. We’ve been sharing our hot mineral water with visitors for more than 130 years. In fact, our bathhouse was the first tourist attraction in the area in the late 1880s. So, essentially, it was the first wellness destination in the Coachella Valley, which is now home to many spas.
The Spa at Séc-he opens in April 2023 — Photo courtesy of The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians
How will The Spa at Séc-he differ from other spas in the greater Palm Springs area?
Mr. Milanovich: It will be the only spa destination in Palm Springs with a hot mineral spring. We’ll have 22 individual baths so guests can experience the benefits of our healing water. It’s no myth; these waters are truly special.
Will there be activities for children and families?
Mr. Milanovich: Definitely. Both adults and children will have the opportunity to learn about us through visiting the museum, taking classes, visiting our interpretive garden and walking the Oasis Trail. We’ll also host field trips for schoolchildren. It’s important to us that guests of all ages have an unforgettable experience and walk away having learned about our people.
The new Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza features activities for all ages — Photo courtesy of gua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians
What do you want visitors to ultimately take away from a visit to the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza?
Mr. Milanovich: We hope visitors will walk away with a greater understanding of who we are today, our history and culture, and why we are great caretakers of the land and natural resources. Each of the 574 federally recognized tribes throughout this nation has a unique story, and we want to share ours.
The museum, which is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, will also include a rotating gallery, where we will feature stories from other Indigenous communities across the nation and around the world.