For Native American Heritage Month, we spoke with former Tribal Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, a federally recognized Tribe of currently more than 520 members that has made Greater Palm Springs their home since time immemorial.
(Header photo above is courtesy of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians; photographed by Ethan Kaminsky. Photo depicts examples of the Tribe's functional and decorated ollas, which were historically used to store water and food among other uses.)
Former Tribal Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. He was Tribal Chairman from 2012-2022.
Today, the Tribe is steward to more than 31,500 acres of their ancestral land in the region, including the Indian Canyons, Tahquitz Canyon and their sacred Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring for which the City of Palm Springs takes its name and where, in 2023, they will be opening the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza, The Spa at Séc-he, and the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum to the public.
In addition to actively preserving their culture and heritage, the Tribe supports communities throughout Greater Palm Springs with their generous philanthropy. Since opening their first casino in Palm Springs (they now have three, including one in Rancho Mirage and their newest in Cathedral City), the Tribe has contributed millions of dollars to local, civic and public service agencies, youth groups, healthcare organizations, schools, libraries, and food banks.
Q. What are some of the unique traditions of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and are they still being practiced and taught today?
A. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has a deep connection to the Palm Springs area and have been here since time immemorial. The Agua Caliente have been known throughout time for beautiful basket designs, pottery known as ollas as well as the healing water of the Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring in downtown Palm Springs. The Tribe’s Cultural Preservation Committee facilitates classes for Tribal members, such as basket weaving, pottery, beading and the Cahuilla language.
Q. The Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza is going to be 5.8 acres in size. What will visitors find there?
A. The new Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza, scheduled to open in 2023, features a new Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, The Spa at Séc-he that celebrates the sacred Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring, a Gathering Plaza, gardens and an Oasis Trail. The new cultural plaza is located at the corner of N. Indian Canyon Drive and E. Tahquitz Canyon Way in downtown Palm Springs.
Inspiration for the Cultural Plaza’s design includes Agua Caliente traditions such as basket weaving and pottery (ollas) and elements found in nature including desert landscapes, Indian Canyon rock formations, the Andreas Canyon stream and the Washingtonia filifera palm trees – the only native palm tree to the California desert. JCJ Architecture, of Phoenix, is the project designer. Penta Building Group is the general contractor.
Q. Can you share a little bit about the Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring, and also tell us a bit about The Spa at Séc-he that is in development?
A. The Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring bubbles up in the middle of downtown Palm Springs. It has been a sacred water source for the Tribe for generations. The new Cultural Plaza draws upon the rich history of experiencing the healing mineral water, which is a focal point for the development. In addition to The Spa at Séc-he, the Cultural Plaza includes numerous outdoor activity spaces, including a Gathering Plaza adjacent to the Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring, originally known as Séc-he (the sound of boiling water). Tribal members and visitors can celebrate community, history and pay respect to the life-giving waters that helped shape the Palm Springs region. Visitors can readily access the Gathering Plaza along landscaped terraces and pathways that will serve as an extension of the Gathering Plaza.
The water from the Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring is carbon-dated at 12,000 years old, which is the last time the water was on the earth’s surface, and the water is truly unique as it contains a mineral make-up that has not been found anywhere else in the world. The Tribe has shared the healing water with visitors for more than 120 years, and the hot spring was the first tourist attraction in Palm Springs. This new spa will be the fifth bathhouse or spa at the site, with the first one operating in the late 1880s.
Q. What can visitors explore at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum?
A. The new Agua Caliente Cultural Museum will feature an ethnobotanical garden and galleries filled with artifacts. Visitors can also experience our Creation Story on a 360-degree screen.
Q. Artifacts were found at the site of the excavation for the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza. Can you share some information on their significance?
A. The Tribe recovered thousands of artifacts from the construction site of the Cultural Plaza, some of which are carbon-dated at more than 8,000 years old. We will have many of the items on display at the new museum. Items include spear and projectile points, mortars, metates and pestles, and shell beads, just to name a few.
Q. The Tribe hosts several events each year that visitors can attend. Can you tell us about them?
A. We celebrate our history and culture throughout the year and with the community at our Jr Ranger Expo for families, Kewet: Native American Learning Day & Market, Dinner in the Canyons, Singing the Birds Bird Song Festival, and Legacy Hike in the Indian Canyons.
Q. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has a strong legacy of leadership. Who were some of its notable leaders over the years?
A. Our leadership series in Me Yah Whae, our Tribal magazine, highlights our leaders throughout the years and dates back to the 1830s including Pedro Chino and Francisco Patencio. Recent notables going back to 1970 include: Richard M. Milanovich, Barbara M. Gonzales Lyons, Ray L. Patencio and Larry N. Olinger. The magazine can be viewed at www.aguacaliente.org.
Q. Who is currently serving on the Tribal Council?
A. In addition to me, the Tribal Council includes Vice Chairman Reid D. Milanovich, Secretary-Treasurer Vincent Gonzales III, Tribal Council Member Jessica Norte and Tribal Council Member John R. Preckwinkle III. [Editor's note: Reid D. Milanovich was sworn in as Chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians on April 5, 2022. In addition to Chariman Milanovich, the current Tribal Council includes Vice Chairman Vincent Gonzales III, Tribal Council Member Jessica Norte and Tribal Council Member John R. Preckwinkle III.]
Q. When was the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation Established?
A. Our Reservation was established on May 15, 1876 by U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. It was expanded a year later on Sept. 29, 1877 by U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes. Today, the cities of Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Rancho Mirage, as well as unincorporated Riverside County, share boundaries with our Reservation.
Q. The 1950s Tribal Council was unique in that it was all-female, and it also changed the course of history for the Tribe in ways that are still impactful today. Can you tell us about who they were and their accomplishments?
A. The first-ever all-women Tribal Council, under the leadership of Chairwoman Vyola J. Ortner, served our Tribe in the 1950s and changed the course of history by encouraging Congress to pass 99-year land leases for Indian land. The very first 99-year land lease was at the site of the Agua Caliente Hot Spring.
Q. The Tribe is very active in local philanthropy. What are some of the Tribe’s more recent charitable donations?
A. The Tribe supports local charities throughout the Coachella Valley and beyond. Some recipients include FIND Food Bank, Mizell Senior Center, Guide Dogs of the Desert, Boys & Girls Club, American Cancer Society and many, many others.
Q. What’s next for the Tribe in the years to come?
A. We are looking forward to opening our new Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza in 2023.