Malki Museum: Preserving Cahuilla Culture

Malki Museum, housed in a traditional one-room adobe building on the Morongo Reservation in Banning, California, is a walk through time, displaying in all its grandeur the history and culture of the Cahuilla (spoken as: ‘Caw-we-ah’) Native Americans. The pride shows, and the journey is well worth your time.

Morongo is a word of Serrano origin, taken from John Morongo, a leader at the turn of the century when the Serrano people of the local mountains and desert were forced into a coexistence with the Cahuilla at the then-called “Malki Reservation.” It was later renamed Morongo by the federal government. The Morongo is one of several Cahuilla bands in Southern California, which also includes members of the Chemehuevi tribe. By the way, the name is phonetically pronounced, “shee-mu-way-vee.”

Jane Penn, a Wanikik Cahuilla, had lovingly amassed quite a collection of Cahuilla arts and crafts for many years and stored them in her home. From 1958 onward she conceived of creating a museum to be known as “Malki,” which is the Cahuilla word for “dodging” and the original name of the Morongo Reservation.

Lori Martinez is the friendly docent who greets you and is happy to answer your questions about the museum.

Jane Penn’s dream came to fruition on February 1965, when Malki officially opened its doors to the public. The museum was dedicated in a traditional ceremony where nearly 1,000 people gathered.

Katherine Siva Saubel, Penn’s relative by marriage, was asked to become the president of Malki, while Penn became its director and treasurer. The first non-profit museum on an Indian reservation opened its doors to the public and continues to display artifacts from prehistoric to recent times.

Later, Saubel’s book, titled Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants would became a living example to Katherine’s extensive knowledge about natural healing. The term Temalpakh is a Cahuilla word meaning “from the earth.”

The San Bernardino County Sun, May 28, 1969

Saubel’s mother, Melana Sawaxell, was a Cahuilla medicine woman and taught her the traditional plants and their uses, which Saubel later wrote down with the help of anthropologist Dr. Lowell Bean. The information from this book is still used in the self-tour guide for the garden and visitors are encouraged to take it to the garden with them.

The San Bernardino Sun, May 30, 1970

In 1962, Saubel worked with the professor of American linguist, William Bright, on his studies of the Cahuilla language and as he prepared several publications. She also taught classes with Bright and with professor Pamela Munro of UCLA, and served as co-author with Munro on Chem’i’vullu: Let’s Speak Cahuilla, published by UCLA in 1981.

Redlands Daily Facts, October 9, 1975

In 1964, Katherine worked on Cahuilla language research with linguist Professor Hansjakob Seiler of the University of Cologne, Germany, to do further work on providing an authentic written translation of the Cahuilla language that had previously existed only in spoken form.

Progress Bulletin, February 7, 1976

Saubel is acknowledged nationally and internationally as one of California’s most respected Native American leaders. She received an honorary PhD in philosophy from La Sierra University, Riverside, California and was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the University of California at Riverside (UCR).

Inside the museum, the past comes alive. If you let your imagination free, you can almost hear the voices from more than a thousand years ago. Paradise lost to the ages, perhaps.

Saubel served on the Riverside County Historical Commission for many years, which selected her County Historian of the Year in 1986. In 1987, she was recognized as “Elder of the Year” by the California State Indian Museum. Governor Jerry Brown appointed her to the California Native American Heritage Commission in 1982. In this capacity she has worked to preserve sacred sites and protect Indian remains.

The museum’s annual fiesta called Kewet includes honoring Native American veterans, arts and crafts, fry bread, bird songs, and dances. Malki Museum sponsors three main events each year which are designed to be traditional and educational.

Malki Museum on the Morongo Reservation is open to the public. It maintains the Malki Museum Press, which publishes the Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology and scholarly books on Native American culture. The reservation is also home to the Limu Project, a tribal community-based nonprofit organization that helps families preserve knowledge of their indigenous languages, history, and cultural traditions.

Ramadas are used during Kewet and other tribal gatherings.

One of the many interesting displays at the museum is the story of Willie Boy (real name: “Billy Boy”), a Chemehuevi/Southern Paiute Indian who, even to this day, can the subject of passionate controversy. Willie Boy was a wanted man in 1909. The stuff of legends.

Willie Boy was portrayed by non-Native American actor Robert Blake in 1969’s Tell Them Willie Boy Was Here, which was loosely based on the real incident and its aftermath. Many disagree with the official story, and have sought out the alternative opinions of tribal members and others. In its day, it was a story that mesmerized the nation. Katherine Siva Saubel was quoted as having been told by sources that Willie Boy got away.

Ramada workshop.

The Morongo tribe lived from the land by using native plants and animals. A notable tree whose fruits they harvested is the California Fan Palm. The Cahuilla also used palm leaves for basketry of many shapes, sizes and purposes; sandals, and roofing thatch for dwellings

The Malki garden view from a ramada.
The Desert Sun, December 15, 1989.
Malki Museum Director, Amanda Castro, and John.

The Cahuilla and Serrano languages are technically considered to be extinct as they are no longer spoken at home, and children are no longer learning them as primary languages. Joe Saubel, a Morongo tribal member and the last pure speaker of Pass Cahuilla, died in 2008. Recent generations have found a renewed interest in their native languages, however. Many families are working to have their children educated to speak Pass Cahuilla and/or Serrano.

Traditional ceremonial gourd and shell rattles used in bird dances.
The San Bernardino County Sun, July 14, 1990
Temalpakh means “from the earth.” There are about 50 varieties of plants in the museum’s garden.
We had the whole museum and garden all to ourselves when we visited.

The museum’s garden was re-designed in 1994 as the new demonstration garden, covering roughly one quarter of an acre. A cure for just about anything can be found in many of the 50 or so plants at the Malki Museum’s Ethnobotanical Garden. You can also feed a family, roof a house, or diaper a baby with various parts of these plants.

Los Angeles Times, May 19, 1991
Buckwheat grains makes a very nutritious, gluten-free flour for food or it can be used as a medicinal tea.
The Desert Sun, April 19, 1996
We enjoyed reading about the various plants for their nutritional and medicinal uses.
Opuntia, commonly called prickly pear, is a genus of the cacti family. It’s fruit and fleshy paddles (nopales) are edible.
The Malki Museum garden is full of birdsong, sunshine and Elder wisdom passed down through generations.

Katherine Siva Saubel passed away at the age of 91 years old on November 1, 2011 but her spirit remains at the Malki Museum and gardens through her rich legacy of preserving Cahuilla culture.

A metate or metlatl (or mealing stone) is a type or variety of quern, a ground stone tool used with manos (rolling stone) for processing grains and seeds.
Mesquite is a member of the legume family of plants which includes peanuts, alfalfa, clover, and beans. Perfectly adapted for its dry environment, the mesquite is a hardy tree.

Hours of Operation

11795 Malki Road Morongo
Reservation Banning,
California 92220

Hours of Operation:
Tuesday – Saturday, 10:00am – 4:00pm
Closed on Sunday and Monday.
Telephone: (951) 849-7289

Malki Museum is free to the public but donations are always appreciated.


From Interstate 10, take the Fields Road turnoff. Turn left under the freeway. Follow the signs to the Morongo Reservation. Please be prepared to stop your vehicle and show your photo ID to security at the front gate upon arrival. Make another left at the stoplight. Proceed west on the frontage road until you come to Fields Road. Turn right and head north. At the intersection of Morongo Road, continue north for 100 yards. The entry gate to the Malki Museum will be on your left.

Citations and Suggested Resources

Ethnobotany Project: Contemporary Uses for Native Plants, Southern California and Northern Baja California Indians, English and Spanish Edition by Rose Ramirez and Deborah Small

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.