Tribal Links

Why are New Mexico's Indian tribes embracing the ultimate white man's game?

 

Wendell Chino was a short, iron-willed man with a megaphone voice who ruled the Mescalero Apaches of southern New Mexico as president for 34 years, until he died in 1998 at age 74. Preaching sovereignty and promising jobs, Chino brought to his once-anemic reservation a ski resort, sawmill, metal factory, casino gambling and, almost, an infamous nuclear waste dump. He often joked: "Zunis make pottery. Navajos make rugs. Apaches make money."

But surely some Mescaleros must have doubted his entrepreneurial wizardry when, more than a quarter-century ago, Chino gazed upon a fallow field lying beneath the sacred 12,000-foot peak, Sierra Blanca, and declared the farmland perfect for - what else! - the country's first tribal-owned golf course.

Bulldozers scraped off tons of topsoil and leveled hundreds of ponderosa pines, piñons and junipers to accommodate a 100-acre, emerald-green carpet of dense turf that ran up and down rocky hillsides, along small creeks and beside the shore of deep, cold Lake Mescalero. Depending upon one’s perspective, it was either an aesthetic marvel or a sacrilege.

Chino's unlikely dream - a mountainous manicured golf course attached to the Mescaleros' Inn of the Mountain Gods resort - not only became a word-of-mouth sensation among Southwestern golfers, it also planted the seed for one of the more surprising economic development success stories in all of Indian Country - a trail of pueblo-owned golf courses in New Mexico that has become a model for other golf-hungry tribes from Florida to California.

"You would not believe the number of tribes that are building or planning golf courses," says Scott Pierce, project manager for Arizona-based First Golf, now working on three Indian-owned projects in New Mexico. Pierce says First Golf used to advertise its services at an annual national conference on Indian gaming, "but people would see our booth and just sort of back away, like, 'What are you doing here?' Golf was completely foreign. Now every tribe with a casino wants to talk golf."

While an exact count is hard to come by, tribal sources and golf-design firms estimate there are about 25 tribal-owned courses - now open or under development - in some 10 states. In New Mexico, there are courses at the Mescalero Reservation and the pueblos of Isleta (27 holes currently, 18 more planned), Santa Ana (two courses), Cochiti (one course) and Pojoaque (two courses), with the San Felipe, Sandia, Santa Clara and Zuni pueblos all reportedly discussing the building of courses.

But why here? Why now?

Casino profits have made all things possible. Tribes that once had the per capita incomes of Third World countries are now building schools, roads, housing, youth and senior centers and working with nontribal corporations to bring in restaurants, hotels and other commercial developments. Golf is now seen as a near-perfect tourism magnet for attracting young professionals and small corporate conferences.

"It's purely and simply good business strategy," says Manley Begay, director of the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona. "It is in the interest of the casino tribes that they diversify. Nationwide, not all of the casino tribes are doing well. In fact, only a handful are."

Yet all the money and marketing savvy wouldn't draw golfers if the New Mexico pueblos didn't have golf's two essentials: land and water. The pueblos are blessed not only with stunning landscapes that entice the Lexus-driving golfer, but also with bountiful water rights and the gently contoured foothills and pastures that golf-course architects dream of turning into fairways of Kentucky bluegrass.

Strictly from the golfer's viewpoint, the pueblo courses have been a monumental success, and several have been named as among the best public courses in America. Each one is not only physically beautiful and challenging, but in terms of newly built American courses, relatively cheap. With few exceptions, the courses can be played for about $25 to $45 a round - steep fares compared to small-town municipal courses, perhaps, but at least two to four times less expensive than comparable courses in Phoenix and Scottsdale.

Best of all, since the pueblos aren't trying to sell real estate to upscale Anglos, their courses are wondrously free of the oppressive trophy-home housing that plagues virtually every new golf course in America. And while this may not say much for the average golfer's appreciation of wilderness, invariably golfers say they feel closer to nature on the pueblo courses and often remark about the coyotes, roadrunners and jackrabbits that accompany them on their rounds.

Yet, for some, the thought of New Mexico's pueblos becoming outposts for suburban golfers sounds like fingernails on the chalkboard.

Even after a decade of watching incongruous casinos sprout upon sacred Indian lands the way Stuckey's once dotted the interstates, the notion of Indian tribes embracing the ultimate white man's game suggests a cultural oxymoron not seen since the naming of the Utah Jazz.

With its deserved, but fading, reputation for racist, sexist, Republican country clubs, pink polyester pants and a sordid environmental record of excessive water and chemical use, one could understandably ask: Is there any game on the planet more alien to the Native American ethic than golf?

Well, as with so many things in the changing American West, you might be surprised.

Nowhere is the Indian golf-building boom more obvious or concentrated than along the Rio Grande in New Mexico, roughly between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, where Spanish explorers in the 1500s found Indian communities that lived in small adobe villages, which they logically called pueblos, or towns. The name stuck, though only 19 pueblos survived the Spanish oppression. Today most pueblo members, young and old, can still speak one of their four distinct languages - Tiwa, Tewa, Towa and Keresan.

Ranging from about 500 to 5,000 members, the pueblos are forever astride two divergent cultures - one outside, frenetic and driven by commerce; the other, slower, closer to the land and family. Many members even maintain two homes: a traditional baked-mud adobe, often close to the Rio Grande or one of its tributaries, near garden plots of corn and squash that look ancestral, timeless; and a more conventional house, often typical Southwestern tract housing, complete with plastic mailboxes and basketball hoops.

The casino-free pueblos farthest from the main highways have usually maintained a low profile and are known more for their pottery and weavings, which fetch fortunes in Santa Fe's galleries, while the casino-dependent tribes lure tourists with garish billboards all along Interstate 25. Virtually every pueblo, regardless of wealth, still fights a host of battles, from teenage pregnancy to alcoholism, even as forces like gambling, higher education and the Internet transform an entire generation.

Seventeen miles north of Albuquerque's desert sprawl, just west of I-25, a fast-food boulevard of KFCs, Pizza Huts and homegrown Lota Burgers makes it easy to forget this land was part of the true El Camino Real - the royal road where Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his troops walked in 1540 in search of elusive gold cities. Today, as you cross the cool shallow Rio Grande and its serene banks of cottonwoods and coyote willows, you see a new gold rush in progress.

Tucked beside the town of Bernalillo on Highway 44 is the Santa Ana Pueblo's new three-story, steel-reinforced, faux-adobe casino (replacing one five years old), the new 350-room Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa (billed as the largest resort on Native American land), the elegant Prairie Star restaurant, the 27-hole Santa Ana Golf Club and, just up the hill, the Hyatt's just-opened Twin Warriors championship golf course, which is already well-booked and will cost the general public $125 per round to play.

This is all fairly amazing to older Santa Ana members like tribal administrator Roy Montoya, 60, who used to ride to the original pueblo village as a little boy in a mule-drawn wagon. "In 1984, the tribe employed nine people," Montoya told me, as we sat around a long, wooden conference table in the tribal council's "War Room." Now that number is close to 1,000, thanks largely to the casino across the street. The pueblo won't disclose its casino revenue, and has joined other gambling pueblos in refusing to divulge its internal audits to the state, but a casino of its size would likely gross $70 million to $80 million a year, according to Guy Clark, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition Against Gambling.

Yet, surprisingly, golf came before gambling here. "We were looking for something," joked Montoya, a retired accountant, "where white people would come, spend their money and leave." When the pueblo opened the Santa Ana Golf Club in 1991 on a rural 200-acre site, Montoya says several council members weren't exactly clear on the golf concept. "Some would ask me, 'How many cows can we put in there?' "

The notion of bringing what they assumed would be largely upper-class white people to play a game none of them knew or even watched on TV sounded "sort of from outer space," says Montoya, who still raises a few cows but never plays golf. The Santa Ana Golf Club, under director Roger Martinez, is now known throughout the state for being well-managed, but the first years were very rocky. "I'd wake up at 4 a.m.," Montoya recalls, "wondering where the payroll was gonna come from."

No longer. Thanks to the casino, the Santa Ana Pueblo kicked in as its share of the new Hyatt Tamaya resort a cool $18 million. Not bad for a 700-member pueblo that was nearly obliterated in the bloody Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when the Spanish priests and settlers were driven back to El Paso.

Perhaps such rags-to-roulette stories once rankled the Cochiti Pueblo, whose 26,000-acre reservation lies 25 minutes north of Santa Ana into the reddish Jemez Mountains, but tribal members are remarkably sanguine about their choice (so far) to bypass the casino culture.

"We have been inoculated," says Princeton-educated Cochiti Governor Regis Pecos, whose sad-eyed eloquence can be mesmerizing. Golf came to Cochiti almost by default, Pecos told me, after the pueblo's traumatic experiment with "development" and the Great Western Cities Corporation, which in the 1960s enticed Cochiti leaders to lease 7,000 acres for construction of a retirement and vacation community called Cochiti Lake. "There were going to be 40,000 (mostly Anglo) people here, plus a hospital, marina, schools and a golf course," Pecos said. "It disrupted our schools, the teaching of our native language, how our people worked, and upset the agricultural lifestyle that defined who we were as a people."

A long, litigious story made short: The first cookie-cutter home went up in 1972, but in 1984, when there were still only a few hundred residents in Cochiti Lake, Great Western Cities filed for bankruptcy and Cochiti Pueblo bought back its 99-year lease and title to one exceptional golf course designed by famed golf architect, Robert Trent Jones. Perhaps the most physically striking of all the pueblo courses, the Cochiti layout is tight and mountainous, lined with spindly ocotillo cactus and braying, baseball glove-sized bullfrogs.

Curiously, the Cochitis, who never planned to have a golf course and have rejected proposals for everything from hotels to solid-waste dumps to riverboat casinos (they have a lake), now rely on their golf course's million dollar-a-year gross for the lion's share of the pueblo's revenue. "The subject of a casino comes up often," Pecos says, "but with all that has happened ... the discussion never lasts very long. We want to define the kind of visitor who comes here. We want them to have respect. Golfers represent those kinds of values."

One cannot honestly discuss golf in New Mexico, on or off the pueblo, without talking about water. This awesomely beautiful and dreadfully poor place (48th lowest in per capita income) is the third driest of the 50 states. Rainfall averages about 15 inches a year in Santa Fe (at 7,000 feet), and less in mile-high Albuquerque. You have to request drinking water in Santa Fe restaurants, low-flush toilets are cultural staples, and among many citizens, not just ardent environmentalists, the thought of a clover-green playground for the affluent is unconscionable.

At these altitudes, in the peak summer months, many courses will use nearly 1 million gallons a day for irrigation, or enough to supply three families of five for an entire year. Over a full year, accounting for less watering in cooler months, these courses would use an average of 600 to 800 acre-feet of water for irrigation, or upwards of 260 million gallons.

For the New Mexico pueblos, simply acquiring the water is usually not the problem. Unique in the United States, the pueblos have aboriginal water rights - superior to all claims by farmers, subdivisions and businesses. Yet these rights have not been fully quantified or adjudicated in New Mexico. A recent court case has in effect limited the pueblos to the amount of water rights they acquired before 1924, but the tribes will certainly appeal. While they remain in this legal limbo, the pueblos are actually looking for water-intensive development schemes, like golf, because prior use will help solidify their claims to more water in the future. "The policy of 'use it or lose it' still carries some weight in water law," one pueblo official said.

How much water the pueblos will use for their golf courses and the impact this water use will have on adjoining farms and towns may one day become as contentious an issue as the pueblos' refusal to divulge their casino profits to the state. Even the suggestion of sharing such information with other water users elicits at most pueblos the cry of sovereignty.

"Part of being sovereign," says Manley Begay, a Navajo, "is being able to make your own decisions. It's interesting when the tables are turned ... and non-Indians want us to divulge sensitive information that we are accused of hiding behind our sovereignty. We have been exiled in our own land, and until there is some sort of reconciliation, the tribes will be wary. They've been burned more than once, more than twice."

But when it was pointed out that many other sovereign nations - such as Belgium and France - would gladly share information that impacts a natural resource upon which other nations depend, Begay simply chuckled and said: "We are not Belgium."

One would have a hard time overstating the importance of water on the Pojoaque Pueblo, 12 miles north of Santa Fe. In Tewa, the name means "Place to Drink Water." The significance of this is not lost on golf course superintendent Dennis Delaney, of First Golf, who moved his wife and kids from Arizona to northern New Mexico so that he could tend the Pojoaque Pueblo's 36-hole Towah Golf Resort, set to open partially in late July.

"In Arizona," Delaney told me, as we watched a "shaper" carve out a new fairway with a Caterpillar, "we were limited by law to 90 acres of irrigated turf grass per 18 holes. Here, I'll use about 165 acres for 36 holes. Far less. Our sprinklers are computerized, with their own weather station. Our pesticide use is next to nothing at this altitude - about 75 percent less than a resort course in (more humid) Texas. Everything we do here is designed to conserve natural resources."

These days, the golf industry spends millions marketing itself as a devoted environmental steward, and undoubtedly courses such as Delaney's are vastly improved over those of just a decade ago in terms of water and chemical use and the creation of animal habitat. Yet for some, these eco-friendly overtures are worse than useless.

"Golf in the desert is a total abomination," says John Horning, director of the Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians' watershed protection program. "It's no less outrageous just because it's on tribal land - just a bit more ironic."

Horning, who confesses to enjoying golf about once a year, says he hopes the golf-development schemes of New Mexico's pueblos will help dispel the romantic stereotypes many still hold about the tribes. "They have no corner on the market when it comes to sensitivity," he says. "Some have environmental ethics - some don't. I don't want to be seen as a racist or culturally insensitive, but the buck has to stop, and there has to be some accountability (about water use) by the tribes."

Yet Horning acknowledges that golf courses are easy targets. "Their water use might seem outrageous, but it's still very minimal in the big picture, maybe 2 percent of all irrigation. Irrigated agriculture - especially the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District - is still by far the worst abuser. The farmers are getting away with murder. If the district employed half the technology that the pueblo golf courses have, we'd probably have plenty of water for the river and the creatures who depend on it. It's an irony that escapes most people."

The impact of the Indian-owned courses in New Mexico goes far beyond environmental practices and economic development. As more Native Americans have discovered that golf, stripped of its elitist baggage, is really a competition against nature's obstacles and oneself, its legitimacy has skyrocketed. At every pueblo course, dozens of tribal members now regularly play (for free or reduced rates), and youth programs are gradually becoming - dare we say it - cool.

"Golf was a sport for rich country club kids, a geek sport," says Michael Peacock, a golf-addicted Laguna Pueblo member who directs the New Mexico Native American Business Development Center in Albuquerque. "But I played it for the first time 10 years ago and got hooked immediately." Like most pueblo golfers I spoke with, Peacock credits the influence of pro golfers Tiger Woods and New Mexico's Notah Begay III, who is both Navajo and Pueblo, with breaking down the game's racial and cultural barriers.

Benny Shendo, senior manager of Native American programs at the University of New Mexico and a Jemez Pueblo member who plays golf, says kids on his isolated pueblo west of Albuquerque are 30 minutes from the nearest course (at Santa Ana), yet they flock to summer camps where they usually have only artificial grass mats and whiffle balls. "We're the best sand-trap players," Shendo jokes, "because we have nothing but dirt out there." Shendo is hoping that perhaps with the help of the First Tee Foundation, which helps fund golf programs in underdeveloped communities, his pueblo can build a driving range or maybe a three-hole course.

But Shendo and Peacock both see an even greater need beyond the development of Indian golfers. "I want pueblo kids to manage these golf courses someday," says Shendo. "The tribes need to embrace their own people," Peacock adds, noting that tourists are likely to walk into a pueblo golf course clubhouse and see only Anglo faces behind the counter. "I think that whole golf-culture thing may have been a little overwhelming for some of our tribe members at first," Peacock says, "but now I think they're very proud of the pueblo courses."

Yet, even as other pueblos discuss the construction of new courses, Shendo wonders if the pueblos can continue to build sprawling casinos, resort hotels and golf courses, and to cutely market Indian lore - the Tamaya Resort offers the Kiva pool, the Corn Maiden restaurant, the Ahtosh bar - without further cheapening their cultural integrity. "We've been approached about a resort-style golf course at Jemez," he says, "but I don't think the pueblo is ready to compromise itself. Ninety percent of our kids still speak Towa fluently. If you look at the pueblos that have done well economically, they have also lost quite a bit in terms of language, culture and ceremonies. I don't want to judge, but we look at things through a different lens."

Such concerns are not lost on any Indian, even if his son has become a Native American icon. Notah Begay Jr., whose son, Notah III, is easily the most famous Indian athlete in America today, knows all too well the compromises his Stanford-educated son has made to get where he is.

"We have to live in two worlds," says Begay Jr., who now works with the Indian Health Service in Albuquerque. "Our Indian kids are surrounded by so much cultural junk, from TV to malls to computer games, but at least with golf we are able to keep them outside in nature. Golf fits in spiritually with our native ways. It teaches kids responsibility, patience, even some math," he says, with a laugh.

"But if any kid, regardless of color, is intimidated by the ways of other people, he has lost. The pueblos of New Mexico have always known that."

Bruce Selcraig is a writer living in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at selcraig@swbell.net. This story was funded in part by the McCune Foundation.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Bruce Selcraig