PGA Tour gets a stylish welcome to Indian country
VERNON, N.Y. - If there was any lingering doubt, the inaugural Turning Stone Resort Championship proved that the Oneida Indian Nation of New York has at least two major accomplishments to claim as its own.
One is the creation of an economic engine in an area depressed not only in fiscal opportunity but also in spirit. OIN's business enterprises, consisting of a major destination resort/casino complex, a media production company (Four Directions Media, parent company of Indian Country Today), a chain of service stations/convenience stores and several other endeavors, have created jobs and income in a region long ignored by the state Legislature and bloated bureaucracy.
The other, and perhaps more important, accomplishment is nothing shy of a milestone. The OIN became the first Indian nation to host a nationally sanctioned professional sporting event on tribally owned land. And that event - a four-day PGA golf tournament featuring top professional players - was a spectacular success that might easily get bigger and better.
Weather-wise, the nation got lucky. The PGA event was held in late September which, in central New York, can be chilly, rainy and somewhat miserable. Tournament week, however, was beautiful with lots of sunshine and temperatures in the 80s.
The rest, however, was all planning and skill. The main focus was, of course, the Tom Fazio-designed, 7,482-yard golf course at Atunyote Golf Club, one of three championship-caliber courses at Turning Stone Resort and Casino.
From the frequent and on-time shuttle buses to the beautifully manicured and spectator-friendly golf course, and from the relaxed atmosphere to the outstanding display of PGA golf, those attending the event could bring home little else but praise.
Nation Representative and CEO Ray Halbritter said hosting the Turning Stone golf championship will create a vehicle for what he hopes will be improved communication and co-existence with the surrounding community.
''We're able to present an aspect of our people to the world in a way that represents what we desire - good relations and a beneficial existence,'' he said. ''In our culture, we're taught to do our best in life. It's not about us as individuals - we're part of creation.''
The effort toward conveying that message was readily apparent.
An important piece of that communication is the champion's sterling silver trophy. Based on a 20-foot sculpture titled ''Allies in War, Partners in Peace'' by Utah artist Edward Hlavka, the trophy depicts Oneida Chief Oskanondohna, President George Washington and Oneida woman Polly Cooper, who led a delegation of Oneidas that delivered food to Washington's Continental Army at Valley Forge during the brutal winter of 1777.
Cooper's story, and the OIN's alliance with the then-fledgling United States, illustrates the Oneidas' commitment and contribution to American freedom, a gift often forgotten in history books. The original sculpture is currently on display at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
But it was the smaller details that really illustrated the all-out effort to gently remind visitors of the tournament's Indian flavor.
Re-enactors representing American colonial militiamen and their contemporary Oneida warrior allies guarded the fans' entrance to Atunyote. A unique touch for a pro golf event, these folks represented the Revolutionary War alliance between the fledgling United States and the OIN.
American Indian crafters and artisans sold their wares from tents near the main gate. Even the Fan Guides and daily player pairing pamphlets featured Indian motifs - the two-row wampum belt and a dream catcher with feathers.
Cayuga sculptor Dave Farnham, from Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, gave golfer Bill Haas a 12-inch eagle carved from soapstone. Farnham donated the statute, created by his cousin, Todd Longboat, to commemorate Haas' scoring of the first eagle - two shots under par on a given hole - at the tournament. Atunyote is the word for ''eagle'' in the Oneida language.
Giving something back to the community is always a good sign of neighborliness. Having already attracted the PGA to central New York, the nation wanted to do more to demonstrate its commitment to homeland and neighbors.
The OIN donated approximately $250,000 in tournament proceeds to 100 area charities. Halbritter said the tournament was not solely about money or making a profit.
''This is about being an example - and living the example,'' he said. ''Not just watching and witnessing, but living it.''
Improved relations with state and local officials are important to the Oneida Nation.
Halbritter told ICT that he had invited Gov. Eliot Spitzer and other governmental officials to Atunyote. Only Republican state Sen. Joe Bruno accepted - he and Halbritter walked behind the ropes with PGA pros Steve Flesch and Carl Pettersson for several holes on Sept. 23.
The senator, not necessarily known as a friend to Indians, offered his compliments.
''It's incredible,'' Bruno told the Syracuse Post-Standard. ''Ray and all of his colleagues have done an outstanding job for the community and golf and the economy.''
Attempts by state and local officials to tax nation-owned property and businesses have run head-on into the nation's steadfast defense of its governmental and fiscal sovereignty. Part of that battle has been waged in the U.S. Supreme Court and continues as the Interior Department considers OIN's pending application to place 17,000-plus acres of land into federal trust.
''The tax issue is a principle,'' Halbritter said. ''It's not about our ability to pay. But people don't like it. This is an economically depressed area. Lawyers twist words and politicians refuse to work cooperatively.''
Halbritter pointed out that as OIN has created 5,000 jobs and brought the PGA to central New York, most local politicians have generally failed to create much in the way of economic development.
''All you hear is that the Oneida Nation isn't paying taxes,'' Halbritter said. ''We look to the future - to the seventh generation. We hope someday there will be a better relationship between our people and those who came from overseas.''