Located in a New Mexico valley between Albuquerque and Santa Fe are 73,000 pristine acres of high desert land owned by The Pueblo Nation of Santa Ana.
The dusty plain, speckled with a few cacti and dense with cottonwoods, is rather unembellished, save for lush fairways of the championship golf course and the new adobe-styled Hyatt Tamaya resort.
Once an empty parcel home to tumbleweeds and culturally sensitive archeological sites, today it is a thriving resort of spa treatments, horseback riding and immaculate putting greens — built with deference to the sacred buttes that protrude from the landscape.
The idea of creating revenue by using once-vacant native Indian land isn't a new one. Tribes in New Mexico, Connecticut and elsewhere have used their sovereign status to set up casinos where other developers could not.
But the movement to build golf courses, amusement parks and diversify beyond gaming seems to be a part of a new trend, as financially strapped governors have begun to look beyond casinos as a way of improving their increasingly slim bottom lines.
It's about creating diversions for potential visitors and businesses who don't want the association with casinos, according to Robert Porter, professor of law and director of the Tribal Law and Government Center at the University of Kansas Law School.
"This is a new trend meant to enhance the revenue stream," Porter said. "Many tribes use the money generated by these means for programs and services such as police departments, and the like. In that sense, the trend is really rooted in nuts and bolts governance."
And there is much to govern.
More than 56 million acres of land in the U.S. are currently under Native Indian ownership, most of it in western states like New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona. The Navajo Nation alone owns more than 15 million acres in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
But the tentacles of this progress are now even reaching the Southeast.
In Mississippi, for example, the once-downtrodden Choctaws tribe decided to open up their sprawling 30,000-acre reservation in the east-central part of the state for development.
Instead of unemployment, alcohol addiction, high mortality rates and desperation, the tribe now has a payroll of 7,000 full-time employees, almost two-third of whom aren’t Indian.
What’s more, they’ve created a total of almost 15,000 jobs — thanks to the factories, hotels, high-tech businesses, golf courses and in the case of the Morongo Indian Reservation in California, a water bottling plant owned by the Perrier Group of America.
"This is really rooted in the determination of how badly they need the money, and when it comes to money, there is always an unquenchable thirst," Porter said.
But development doesn’t mean forsaking the past.
At the Tamaya Hyatt Resort in Santa Ana Pueblo, N.M., the well-manicured property and golf course — aptly name Twin Warriors — are both speckled with posted signs asking visitors to respect and stay out of areas where ancient Native Indian artifacts, like pottery and ceramics, have been discovered.
And their rich culture is not forgotten either. Each afternoon, visitors to the resort are treated to traditional bread making and dances in the central courtyard performed by various members of Indian tribes, including the Aztecs of Mexico.
In fact, experts say this is a two-pronged point of benefit as it allows visitors who would otherwise never go to an Indian reservation to become familiar with an oftentimes distant reality — that of the historical plight and rich culture of Native Americans.
"Certainly they are appealing to other demographics," Porter said. "By bringing in non-Indians into the territory and having them take advantage of the hotels, golf, etc. they are being exposed to an environment they would’ve probably never experienced if not for the development."