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Exhibit showcasing Indian cowboys wins award

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Indian cowboys? It’s not an oxymoron.

An exhibit on the story of Cahuilla Indians, who were the first to raise cattle on the southern California territory, won top honors Sept. 17.

The “Cahuilla Cowboys: Making our Marks” exhibit at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum was named this year’s choice for the Western Museums Association’s Award for Exhibition Excellence, which recognizes excellence in exhibits that furthers the study and understanding of the American West. “Cahuilla Cowboys” displayed images and narratives explaining how Cahuilla cattle ranching was an important source of livelihood for Indians in the area and predated traditional American cowboys.

“Not many people know that the first cowboys in California were Indians. Missions had no one to take care of [the cattle], so they had to get Indians,” said Dawn Wellman, assistant curator at the museum.

Cahuilla people are now spread out, divided into nine bands throughout 2,400 square miles of desert, pass and alpine topography of southern California’s inland.

The exhibit closed Oct. 19 after a full year’s running and beat out entries from many Western states, museum officials said in a news release.

“We’re honored that the Western Museums Association has recognized us to be among the finest museums in the West,” said the museum’s executive director, Michael Hammond. “The exhibition brings an interesting history to light.”

The Coachella Valley community, where the museum is located, brought the display to fruition by lending photographs and artifacts.

“It’s a part of their history that has never been written about,” Wellman said. “It was a story that everybody wanted told.