The Historic Malki Museum: ‘We’re COVID-Safe!’

Last year, a digital billboard off Highway 10 in Banning, California, not far from the Morongo Band of Mission Indians Reservation, flashed this reassuring message for three months: “Malki Museum: Celebrating Southern California Indian Culture for over 50 Years. We’re COVID-Safe!”

A digital billboard in Banning, California, reassures tourists that the historic Malki Museum is COVID-safe.
Photo credit: Malki Museum

The eye-catching, state-of-the-art messaging, with an emphasis on COVID safety, cost the museum $10,000. And it was worth every penny, says Amanda Castro, the museum director―especially at a time when the fear of contracting COVID-19 threatened the steady flow of visitors to the historic Malki Museum, the first museum in California founded by Native Americans in 1964.

“We were shut down for a year because of COVID restrictions. So, when we were ready to reopen, we needed to get the word out to Tribal members and the surrounding communities in Beaumont and Banning that even though we are in the middle of a pandemic, the museum has taken every precaution to keep visitors as safe as possible,” says Castro.

Thanks to an $18,500 COVID-19 Recovery and Resiliency Grant from First Nations’ California Tribal Fund, the museum team rolled out a multipronged print and online outreach campaign to communicate this safety message. The highest funding priority was purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE) to safeguard museum staff and visitors from the highly contagious virus.

“We are a small museum, so we bought a two-year supply of disposable masks, hand sanitizers and cleaning supplies―and installed barrier glass at the cash register―to keep everyone protected,” explains Castro. “The award from First Nations gave us confidence that we were doing everything we could in the middle of the reservation to open safely again. And stay open!”

Spreading the Safety Message in Two Languages

When visitors began returning to the Malki Museum in June of 2021, a host of signage greeted them inside and outside the facility on COVID safety―printed in both English and Cahuilla, one of the Native languages of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians.

The museum saw a golden opportunity to promote the endangered Cahuilla language as part of the COVID-19 safety initiative, says Aaron Saubel (Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians), a museum board member and community healthcare worker who, like others, is learning to speak Cahuilla. “There is a renaissance in our community to try to learn the Cahuilla language since most of our fluent speakers are decreasing in numbers.”

The First Nations grant supported the translation of the COVID-19 safety messaging into Cahuilla, with the help of Saubel. “Nobody is going to learn this language overnight. But it’s little things like translating this signage from English to Cahuilla that will help perpetuate the language and encourage the Tribe to learn it,” he says.

Malki Museum founders, Jane Penn, a Wanikik Cahuilla (left), and Dr. Katherine Siva Saubel, a mountain Cahuilla of the Los Coyotes Reservation (right), stand at the build site of the future museum with two herb cooking pots, the museum’s first display.
Photo credit: Malki Museum

Saubel has a very special connection to the Malki Museum. He is the grandson of Dr. Katherine Siva Saubel, the museum’s first president who carried forward the vision of founder Jane Penn. Dr. Saubel would speak to her grandchildren in Cahuilla regularly. “She and my grandpa spoke it all the time, so I grew up listening to it,” recalls Saubel, who moved to the reservation when he was quite young.

The posters, message boards and other signage around the museum encourage visitors in two languages to mask-up, wash hands and maintain six feet of social-distancing. “COVID swept through this reservation twice, so we want to make sure everyone understands how to keep themselves protected,” he says.

Reconnecting the Community Online and On-Site

One of the greatest losses for the Malki Museum during the pandemic was the cancellation of its three annual fundraisers due to safety concerns―the Agave Harvest and Roast, Fall Gathering and Kéwet. Certainly, these events are important revenue streams. But Castro says it was the absence of community and togetherness that hurt the most. “The loss of these social and cultural gatherings has created a lack of community connectedness. But with the help of this grant, we are bringing the community we serve back together in our own way.”

At the outset of the pandemic, when Zoom meetings became the world’s town square, the museum realized it did not have the technological capability to go virtual like so many other businesses. “During 2020, we did not host any online streaming other than raffles because we did not have adequate equipment,” Castro recalls, a distinct disadvantage to museum operations during the shutdown.

But that reality changed with the First Nations grant. With the newly acquired funds, the museum purchased a Zoom account ($200/year), new cameras, and other necessary gear to hold online meetings, lectures, and workshops. Last May, the museum’s largest fundraiser, the Fiesta (Kéwet), which honors Native veterans, was held virtually.

A look inside the Malki Museum, which draws an estimated 100 visitors a month who come to learn about the Indians of the San Gorgonio Pass Area in California.
Photo credit: Malki Museum

And the community seemed ravenous for it. “We had a great turnout and posted videos on Facebook throughout the day, every hour, on the hour. We had thousands of views in just a short time,” Castro says with pride, and a little relief.

Last October, the museum held its first in-person event on museum grounds since 2019―the Fall Gathering, a celebration of Native arts, crafts, games, bird-singing and of course, Cahuilla harvest food. The museum staff is now gearing up to host the next in-person event, the Agave Roast, in April.

“We are excited to be hosting in-person events again,” says Castro. The difference now is that they will also be able to livestream these events for community members who can’t make it or still may be a little unsure about gathering in person.

“Our ability to livestream is a great thing,” Saubel chimes in. “Even if we have to close down again, we can stream our events online and reach more of our community because of it.”

Improving Upon the Past

The Malki Museum has come a long way since visionary founders Penn and Saubel displayed the first exhibit of herb cooking pots passed down from Penn’s father, a celebrated Cahuilla medicine man. Today, the museum draws an estimated 100 visitors a month who come to learn about the Indians of the San Gorgonio Pass Area, view artifacts, attend events and buy historical, scholarly, and language-centered books on California Tribes published by the nationally acclaimed Malki Museum Press.

The museum will host an Agave Roast this April―the first time in two years this event has been held in person.
Photo credit: Malki Museum

Another popular attraction to the museum is the one-quarter-acre ethnobotanical garden, where more than 50 varieties of drip-irrigated plants grow that are vital to Tribal life, such as manzanita, jojoba, elderberry, and desert willow.

While the museum was not prepared initially for the pandemic, the pandemic has prepared the museum for the future.

Saubel says the facility will now always have safety protocols in place. “We will be taking precautions no matter what. It may not be as stringent as it was, but we don’t know if this disease is coming back or not. COVID has definitely changed the way we operate the museum, in a good way.”

Castro says they plan to keep up the bilingual signage, the hand-sanitizing stations, and the partition in front of the cash register, indefinitely.

Saubel brings it full circle. “When COVID broke out, we were closed for quite some time and didn’t know how we were going to open again.” Then along came the COVID-19 Recovery and Resiliency Grant. “It helped us get our name back out there and remind people that we are still here. It was a real blessing to us.”