The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum Explores Native Identity

The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum Explores Native Identity

By: 
Tish Leizens
9/10/12

The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in Palm Springs Southern California wants to educate the public as to who is the American Indian and is dedicating its exhibition space and a year’s time to answer the most often asked questions.

“Are there still Indians here? Are they living in tipis?” These are among the questions Michael Hammond, executive director of the museum, said will be answered at the exhibit to open November 7,  entitled: “Where are the Tipis? . . .  the changing perceptions about Indians”

“We just decided that it is time to make the general public aware of their misconceptions about Indians,” said Hammond. “We want people to walk away with an understanding about Indians.”

“It just became apparent that we needed to broach this subject because we are often asked the questions—Where are the tipis? Where can we find the Indians?” said Dawn Wellman, curator, adding that people don’t even know that Indian tribes are in Palm Springs.

The City of Palm Springs, which is two hours away from Los Angeles and within the Coachella Valley, is the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. The museum, founded in 1991, chronicles their history and culture.

Currently on exhibit till October next year is a photographic journey deep into the majestic beauty of the Indian Canyons of Palm Springs. “Visions of Indian Canyons,” also explores historical controversies surrounding Tahquitz, Andreas, Murray and Palm Canyons—now referred to as the The Indian Canyons.

Hammond said that over the years the museum’s programming has expanded to serve a broader population. Educational activities have increased on the walls and beyond the walls of the museum with their outreach programs.

The upcoming exhibit is in line with the organization’s educational mission. Hammond said the museum’s location is also a good site for this type of exhibit. With tourists, the local population, at over 40,000, swells to 80,000 during weekends, he said.

The Palm Springs Visitors Center touts the desert city as a proud host to several activities that include hiking, biking, aerial adventures, golfing and eco-tourism.

Also in the area are the tribe’s two hotels, two casinos—Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa and Spa Resort Casino—a golf resort and concert theatre.

In mid-2000, the tribe was poised to build a new 110,000 square feet of Museum facility, with the launch of a $65 million capital campaign to expand the current permanent exhibit. The project was shelved due to the economic slowdown.

“We were ready to go out for bids when this entire economy just tanked, ” said Hammond.

Meanwhile, the upcoming exhibit in November will show collections of horrible representations of Indians depicted in 3D objects, pottery, figurines and cartoon drawings, as well as text.

“We will show trailers from some movies in the 40s and 50s,” Hammond said.

Wellman said the exhibit comes in two parts. One part is the question and answer and the other is about stereotyping.

Wellman said questions that pertain to identity include: Who is an Indian? What makes an Indian an Indian? What do Indians like to be called? Are they U.S. citizens?

Other questions are: What is a reservation? What is sovereignty?

Why do American Indians run casinos? What happens to the casino revenues? Do Indians pay taxes? What benefits do Indians receive from the government? Where do Indians go to school?

She said it is important to discuss how Indians have been portrayed in  JohnWayne movies and artifacts like the cigar store Indian.

“It is a complicated exhibit. We will leave it to the observer,” said Wellman. She said the portrayal of the cigar store Indian can be viewed as a bad thing or as statement of facts that people in those days cannot read, Indians were associated with tobacco or Indians sold tobacco inside the store.

“One of the points I want to make is that Indian is not a blanket term for the Native people who are here. Each one has its own culture and government. Some lived in tipis and some lived in igloos. There are 5,000 different types of culture,” said Wellman.

The highlight of the exhibit is the sculptural interpretation of who is the Indian by Gerald Clarke, Jr., a Cahuilla tribe member and artist.

Hammond said Clarke, who has produced incredible metal sculpture, might use mixed media for the museum’s commissioned work. Wellman said the artist is known for his great humor.   “It is going to be a surprise for me too.”

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