I have a tender and reverent place in my heart for the Malki Museum. Every historical museum I visit in Southern California that features California indians (I visit a lot) has on its bookshelf a tidy little booklet that tells all about the life and history of the local tribe. It usually costs about $8 and it was published by The Malki Museum Press. These booklets are so ubiquitous and so informative that I wanted to know more about this niche publishing house and what else they offer. The reality of the Malki Museum is just as its people, extremely humble and unassuming in appearance with almost unfathomably rich hidden depths.
Malki Museum is the first museum in California to be founded by Native Americans. It is housed in a tiny brick building on the Morongo Indian Reservation in Banning and keeps an ethnobotanical garden lined with hundreds of stone mortars and stone flaked tools. To visit the museum, you must first stop and speak with a security guard, show him your I.D., and reveal your intentions. Then its on to the reservation.
The Morongo is on ancestral Cahuilla land, but it has absorbed members of many tribes from across this stretch of desert. It has become a repository for artifacts, archaeological and anthropological research papers, and cultural education. In fact, the day I visited, the manager told me that recently a local research facility had closed its doors and donated a plethora of research papers and educational material to the Malki, the volume of which is so great that a volunteer comes in every Saturday for 6 hours to catalogue the material.
Since 1965 the Malki also runs its own press that publishes literary works on past and present California Indian cultures with the goal of proliferating education about California native people and cultures. Their online bookstore is extensive and seems to include half of everything you would need to read in order to know about Southern California desert tribes. The other half of the best locally produced literature on the subject (in my opinion) seems to be at the Imperial Valley Desert Museum in Ocotillo which was founded by archaeologist Jay Von Werlhof and is still staffed by his loyal accolites.
The most interesting artifact I saw at the Malki was a wooden mortar. I’ve never seen or every even heard of a wooden mortar for grinding food. I suppose it would be a good alternative if the proper kind of rock was not available, it would be more portable, and it would definitely be much better for your teeth to eat food with tiny bits of wood in it than with tiny bits of stone. (A lot of agrarian American natives who ate primarily stone ground food had short teeth.)
I enjoyed the leaf covered ramadas that line the property. They are used for educational space and shade during ceremonies.
It was fun to hold a variety of stone tools in my hand and examine how they were made without having to sift through every rock in a desert wash hoping to find one.
I also learned that the Cahuilla would trap undesirable things, like rattlesnakes and death, inside their basket designs to keep them at bay. For example, if a household has a basket with the image of a rattlesnake woven into the pattern, live rattlesnakes won’t cross the threshold. If an image of an owl is woven into the pattern, death is held off.
The manager at the museum was very sweet to me and went out of her way to help connect me with some very special resources I was seeking.
In April the Malki Museum will be inviting the public to harvest, roast and eat agave. That sounds like a kick in the pants! I would love to do that. I’ve been wanting to taste roasted agave. I asked my local grocer once if they ever sell agave hearts and he was like, um, no, but maybe we could order one for you. Not a top seller I guess. On April 1st and 2nd the agave will be harvested. During the next week it will be placed in an earth roasting pit for a few days. Then on April 8th the roasted agave will be served with other customary Native foods. There are also a variety of demonstrations throughout the day from native plant usage to pottery making. The cost for each of these experiences is a $10 donation per person. Worth it!