WASHINGTON - Melodic chants of millenia-old bird songs from southern
California joined the beat of a Midwestern Algonquin drum group and an
Iroquoian invocation as four tribes from diverse backgrounds joined to
honor the opening of their joint-venture hotel March 3.
The "Four Fires" partnership had plenty to celebrate at their Marriott
Residence Inn here, a short walk from the U.S. Capitol and the National
Museum of the American Indian. Since the new facility began taking guests
Jan. 16, its bookings have run far above expectations. Starting at 65
percent its first few weeks, it was completely full the week of the
opening, which coincided with several major Indian gatherings. Hotel
executives hope for 80 percent booking for the rest of the year.
The inter-tribal partnership, one of the first and most diverse of its
kind, brought together the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and the
Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, both of southern California, and the
Forest County Potawatomi Community and the Oneida Tribe of Indians, both
from Wisconsin. The tribes flew in dozens of tribal members each for the
opening, from elders to small children.
Native decor is subtle in the 13-story, 233-suite - building. Niche boxes
in the lobby display crafts from the four tribes and the walls use the same
Minnesota Kasota limestone that forms the exterior of the NMAI building on
the National Mall. But the message for Indian country came in loud and
"There's strength in unity," said Viejas Chairman Anthony R. Pico in a
prepared statement. "That applies in business today just as it did during
the trading days. Economic viability is necessary to build strength and
unity among tribal nations.
"My commitment is to an Indian economy, where all canoes will ride on the
rising tide. Envision an economy where tribes with the financial resources
partner, invest in, and support other tribal governments in their search
for economic self-reliance."
Although the four tribes used gaming revenues to start up their partnership
in 2002; their strategy looks far beyond the casino business.
"Gaming will go away," San Manuel Chairman Deron Marquez told guests.
"Diversification is necessary to our success as a tribe."
Unlike many recent tribal hotel expansions, the Four Fires project has no
connection with a casino: it's a franchise of Marriott International,
founded by a Mormon family opposed to gambling. (The franchisor,
International Chairman J.W. Marriott Jr., son of the founder, attended the
opening and gave a rare press conference.)
"These are two different businesses," said Michael Dickens, head of the
hotel management company Hospitality Partners. Dickens is responsible for
15 other properties in the D.C. area, as well as the Four Fires hotel,
which is formally named Residence Inn by Marriott-Capitol. He told Indian
Country Today that unlike destination resort hotels linked to casinos,
business hotels must be located near economic centers.
The Marriott passed that test handily. Surrounding blocks include major
government offices, such as the Department of Education, as well as the
Congressional office buildings for the House of Representatives. The San
Manuel Band now owns one of the former Congressional Annex buildings and
maintains a Washington office on the top floor.
Although the tribal partnership planned on tourist traffic for the NMAI
building, which opened last September, it received an unexpected bonus when
D.C. secured the return of a major league baseball team. A new stadium for
the Washington Nationals is expected to open in several years within 15
blocks of the hotel. Several speakers kidded baseball fan Marquez on his
The project is riding on the reviving fortunes of the hotel industry, which
went through a sharp slump after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It has also
caught the crest of a renaissance in the Washington, D.C. economy. D.C.
Mayor Anthony Williams bragged to guests about a surge in convention
business fostered by the city's new convention center.
Three of the four tribes are applying the same formula in alliance with
Marriott International in the capital of California. The Three Fires LLC,
the Oneidas of Wisconsin and the two California tribes, broke ground on a
$53 million, 239-suite Marriott Residence Inn in Sacramento last December.
It is located next to Capitol Park, center of the state Legislature and
Marquez said the San Manuel Band would also be opening a Hampton Inn
franchise of its own near its Highland, Calif., reservation. He said he
hoped for a series of future inter-tribal partnerships.
"When a project is successful, it gives you an appetite to do more," said
Hospitality Partners head Dickens.
Harold "Gus" Frank, chairman of the Forest Country Potawatomi Community
executive council, and Karen Hughes, vice chairman of the Oneida Tribe of
Indians of Wisconsin, also spoke, each acknowledging the large contingents
from their tribe in the audience. Artley Skenandore, a culture keeper and
former business manager for the Oneida, gave an extended invocation in
Oneida, as he had at the earlier groundbreaking. "Things have gone so well
since then," said Dickens, "we had to have him do it again."
Pico presented Pendleton blankets to Marriott, Dickens and James A. Donohoe
III, president of the project developer The Donohoe Companies. Pico joked
that the wool blankets would be useful against the cold outside as he
wrapped them over his partners' shoulders. He later joined the circle of
bird singers as they bobbed in a two-step dance accompanied by gourd
rattles and melodies that he said went back 10,000 years.