For the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the opening of the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in the heart of Palm Springs is a 30-year dream realized. 

The contents of the museum were revealed to the community during its grand opening on Nov. 4. During the dedication, Tribal Chairman Reid D. Milanovich said that every federally-recognized tribe in the United States “has a distinct culture that includes traditions, language, historical clothing, and housing styles, as well as historical food and medicine preparations. We want to share our culture with visitors through our authentic voice. This is our story, in our voice. We are here today just like we have been since time immemorial.”

A first look at the Agua Caliente Gathering Plaza 

The Oasis Path at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in Palm Springs, California, is illuminated at night

The Oasis Trail at night. Photo by Kathy Condon

When the fences came down around the finished complex, the 10,000-square-foot Agua Caliente Museum and the Agua Caliente Gathering Plaza were revealed. Outdoor spaces featuring desert native plants surround both, so you can sit and enjoy the serenity and beauty of the area at no cost. The Oasis Trail also winds through the plaza and is an interactive cultural experience in miniature of the nearby Indian Canyons and Tahquitz Canyon trails. The recreated rock formations add to the authenticity of the pathway.

JCJ Architecture out of Phoenix designed the project, and their guiding principles for the space were based on the tribe’s values and commitment to their story.

Entering the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum

A thatched hut replica inside the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in Palm Springs, California

The museum’s exhibition space is filled with artifacts. Photo by Kathy Condon

The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum’s design is rooted in a tradition reminiscent of basket weaving, pottery, and elements of the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation. Inside the building, the designs incorporated into the floors, lights, and decor all have been meticulously selected to represent aspects of the Agua Caliente culture in five separate exhibition areas.

The journey through the building begins with a film. You are seated in a longhouse-style theatre with 360-degree viewing. The 12-minute film tells the story of the tribe’s creation.

When you exit the theatre, the building’s curved pathway leads to a permanent exhibition displaying the tribe’s history in Coachella Valley. Historical photographs line the wall, interspersed with timelines. Glass cases in the center of the room reveal the beauty of the collection of well-preserved baskets used by ancestors to gather berries and store and prepare food. The artistry involved will cause you to stop and observe the intricate details of the perfectly-shaped baskets.

The beaded clothing of both men and women is displayed with an explanation of the ceremonial occasions on which they were used. In a nearby area, cases show the artifacts discovered when digging began for the museum’s construction. The objects found revealed the Agua Caliente tribes were in Coachella Valley even earlier than was previously thought: 5,000 to approximately 8,000 years ago.

Photos offer a look at the past

A well-designed and perfectly lit gallery is a beautiful way to observe incredible photos of the tribe. Both current and historically valuable photos have captured ceremonies, individuals, and scenes that illustrate the tribe’s life.  Plan to spend some time here. The more you look at the photos, the more you notice. The museum is the perfect place to look deeper into the Agua Caliente culture, and there are knowledgeable people on hand ready to help you learn.

Stopping by the museum store 

A woman holds a piece of pottery inside the gift shop at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum

One-of-a-kind treasures await in the museum gift shop. Photo by Kathy Condon

When you wander into the store, you will immediately observe that this is not an ordinary museum gift shop. There are no duplicate gadgets or kitschy items. A glass case holds handmade jewelry and one-of-a-kind rings, earrings, and bracelets are beautifully displayed.

The entire space has been carefully curated with art made by Indigenous people from throughout the United States. Weavings and paintings adorn the walls, while exquisite pottery is waiting to find a place in your home. You can visit the museum store without paying an admission fee.

Everything else you need to know about the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum

Admission to the museum is $10 for adults; $5 for seniors 65+, children 6+, and college students with ID; and free for kids under 6, military members and veterans, locals with government ID, and Native Americans with ID.

Educational opportunities are abundant, and signing up for the museum’s newsletter lets you keep tabs on lectures and classes offered during your stay. Presently, there are scheduled lectures about the artifacts found when digging the project; the design of the building; and basketry. 

If you have a car, there is plenty of free parking. The entire area is handicap accessible.

This incredible asset is within walking distance of many of our Palm Springs Preferred Small Hotels, and could be combined with a visit to the luxurious Spa at Séc-he. When you come to Palm Springs, plan to take a couple of hours to learn about the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the first settlers of Palm Springs.