Wildhorse: Great Oregon Golfing on “The Rez”

Set in northeastern Oregon, Wildhorse is reservation golf at its finest.

Since the dawn of humanity and on every continent but Antarctica, bands of people have displaced others in quest of territory, food and security.  As much as any of such population, Native Americans did not fare well during the European migration into the New World.  Pushed into reservations in the United States, Indian tribes were typically left with land that Manifest Destiny-minded politicians felt had little value in resources, as a trade route or settlement potential.

In America, the rez usually sat the middle of nowhere.

Well, at the base of the Blue Mountains, which was the main obstacle to pioneers on the historic Oregon Trail, there now is a reservation that’s also a destination, anchored by the Wildhorse Resort and Casino, which features a hotel, five restaurants and a John Steidel-designed 18-hole course that’s one of the best bargains in golf, with green fees that range from $21 to $26.

Not far from the city of Pendleton, the resort and golf course are owned by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.  Opened in 1997, Wildhorse was one of the first built on reservation land.  Such courses epitomize how the sport, suffering in so many places, has flourished on American Indian reservations.

Indeed, according to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), there are roughly three-dozen Native American communities that own or operate more than 50 golf courses.  While often created as an add-on to casino gaming, the courses are seldom surrounded by housing, and sprawl across ample landscape, giving architects the chance to do their best work.

It is sweet irony that such lands could be transformed into gracious and prosperous places, in a manner analogous to clever Brother Coyote of Indian mythology, who in so many tales turned a dire situation into an advantage.  What’s more, well-crafted golf courses are in harmony with the transcendent reverence Native Americans have always shown their homelands.  Nearly all of the tribal courses follow the stringent Audubon International standards for environmental preservation and protection, which actually enhances wildlife habitat.   Wildhorse, for example, has numerous water hazards that attract thousands of migratory birds each spring and fall.  The yellow-head blackbird, killdeer, western meadowlark and numerous waterfowl are summer-long residents.

Moreover, since the golf isn’t the main attraction at a casino-anchored resort, the green fees are often remarkably reasonable, so evident in the Wildhorse fees.

While reservations may be good for golf, there are tribal leaders who feel golf is good for the reservation in several dimensions, as I learned in an interview conducted several years ago.    “We are in a rural area of Eastern Oregon, which made it clear that if we were to grow, prosper and have stability, we should diversify into something more than an Indian casino,” explains Gary E. George, a Native American who has served as the Chief Operating Officer for the Wildhorse Resort & Casino.   “Gaming is proliferating right now,” adds George, “but at some time that trend will end.  The tribes that can offer more to tourists will have a better economy and better community, especially with something like golf.  The game is special and the discipline it enforces brings out the best in a person.  I see kids that I used to prosecute for delinquency when I was the tribal executive director, now as young adults who get up early to play golf, and who work hard so they can keep playing.  That’s a great social benefit.”

As an elder in the business of reservation golf, George led the first Tribal Forum, during a Golf Course Superintendents Association’s Education Conference in San Diego.  In his keynote address, George wanted to “debunk the myths” of doing business in Indian Country.  “There are people who think they can come into a reservation and there are no rules with which they have to comply,” says George.  “Well, there may be state laws that don’t apply, but many federal standards such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act will affect a project.  And then there are many tribal governments and laws that a developer must understand.”

With wide-open rolling fairways that accommodate all but the most errant tee shots, and the large greens that play fast and true, the Wildhorse design is a blend of traditional American resort and Scottish style links.  Its lakes, rolling hills and views of the Blue Mountains make the course one with the earth, fitting given the tribes that are behind its construction.   Indeed, nearby the resort and course is the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, with an $18 million museum and interpretive center, which tells the story of local American Indian culture and history before, during and after the massive immigration on the Oregon Trail.

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