Hotel Ownership Brightens Picuris Indians' Future

TINY Picuris Pueblo, secreted away in Hidden Valley 60 miles outside of Santa Fe, harbors all that is left of a once substantial tribe. Poor, remote, and still deeply traditional, the Picuris Indians now number only 230 on their 15,000 acre reservation.

Those who remain at the Pueblo have had a hard time making ends meet. But a creative interpretation of the 1974 Indian Financing Act has sent the whole tribe headlong into a business venture meant to rescue its economic future.

The Picuris now own 51 percent of the upscale Hotel Santa Fe, 60 miles from their reservation. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which oversees the management of Indian economic development on reservations, guaranteed an $11 million loan to the Picuris to set them up as the hotel's majority owners.

With a 68 percent occupancy rate thus far during their first year, the prospects for success look bright for the hotel.

"They're right about on target for a new property," says Phil Kithil of the New Mexico Hotel and Motel Association. "The first five or six months of an operation, you have to build clientele.... This is a respectable performance."

Hotel Santa Fe is not expected to return a profit for at least three years. But the gains are expected to be considerable when they do start rolling in - upwards of $500,000 a year, of which 51 percent will go to the Picuris.

"Santa Fe is a strong hotel market, especially for a good hotel in a good location," says Robert Benton of Robert Benton and Associates, which surveys occupancy rates. Santa Fe hotels had almost a 74 percent occupancy rate last year - one of the best rates in the country, he notes.

The town also hosts assorted meetings and conventions for, by, and about Indians, from which the hotel stands to gain patrons.

The non-Indian developers, Santa Fe Hospitality Company Inc. and Yates Drilling Company, which invested $1.2 million in the hotel, are responsible for its management. But as majority owners, the Picuris are included in all major policy decisions and are preferred for job opportunities.

At present eight of the 50 employees of the hotel are Picuris, and 14 are native Americans. To help with the 120-mile round trip, a company van picks up the workers at 4:30 each morning and returns them at night.

The hotel gift shop is owned and operated by the Picuris, who sell their pottery, jewelry, and other Indian arts there. It is the only tribally owned gift shop in Santa Fe.

The suite hotel already has won awards for its design and comfort. Built to resemble the pueblos of the area, the design is enhanced on every hand by Indian motifs, art, and welcome signs. Sculptures by noted American Indian sculptor Allan Houser grace the grounds.

Various tribes have worked with the BIA to build hotels and other businesses, but usually on their reservation or very nearby. The projects have had varying results. One successful operation is the Inn of the Mountain Gods on the Mescalaro Apache reservation in Ruidose, N.M.

Gerald Nailor, governor of Picuris Pueblo at the time, saw the economic potential of the hotel business for his tribe when it was first suggested to them by non-Indian businessmen in 1988.

"It was a godsend," Mr. Nailor says. "We had been looking forward to something that would make us self-sufficient."

Because so many tribal members already had left the Pueblo, the town's life was endangered by poverty. Few members could make even the barest living as jewelers, potters, and painters, or working for the Forest Service or at other low-paying jobs. Unemployment stood at 40 percent.

Skeptics feared the hefty loan would place their lands in danger. But the BIA's guarantee made their fears groundless.

Another question in the opening negotiations concerned the hotel's distance from Picuris. Would employment opportunities in Santa Fe spell tribal splintering in Picuris? The hotel management's solution to this quandary involves a liberal holiday schedule by which Picuris (and other Native Americans) may take tribal ceremony days off from work.

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