Kah-Nee-Ta’s closing weekend was brimming with guests — and memories.
Jerry and Brian Gorman thought about how their granddaughter took her first steps here. Erik Firkus remembered himself at 8, “running around, being free.” He was with his 7-year-old son this weekend.
They were among thousands who came to say goodbye to the spring-fed swimming pool, the campground, the teepees, the horses, the hotel surrounded by high desert trails. And …
“The People. The People of the Tribe are always such generous people,” Jerry Gorman said.
One well-known ambassador for the people at Kah-Nee-Ta is Delson Suppah Sr. He’s an elder in the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and, until this week, he spent most Saturday nights telling legends to tourists. By day, he often sat in the shade of a juniper tree by the swimming pool, just chatting with guests.
Suppah remembered getting his first job at the resort at 17, back when that meant wearing moccasins and ribbon shirts to work.
“We need to get back there because that’s what the tourists want,” he said. “They want to see Indians and they want to learn about Indians.”
Suppah said tribal leadership failed to preserve that original identity, or act on a variety of plans to keep the resort open through outside investment.
“They can call it blame. I don’t call it blame, it’s fact,” he said.
Tribal and hotel officials declined interview requests. In a press release last week, Tribal Councilor Carina Miller said it would be irresponsible to pour more money into a venture that hasn’t been profitable for years. The decision to close the resort was contentious and came after a slew of proposals stalled.
The closing weekend culminated in time-honored traditions, such as a horse parade with riders in beaded regalia, dancing and a salmon dinner. Roma David ran the show.
“I’m just going to put on a parade and just [have a] bitter farewell,” she said.
Bitter, she said, because so much has changed for the worse at Kah-Nee-Ta. She thinks the hotel rates got too expensive. A golf course was built in the 1980s. More recently, a casino came and went. Now, that’s on the main highway through the reservation, a few miles away from the remotely-situated resort.
Roma gave a quick recounting over the decades, skimming over the roughest parts — the fires, the scandals and the floods — while washing salmon flesh off a piping hot wooden stick. It was used to roast the fish over an open flame. Her mother, her grandmother and her aunt also cooked salmon dinners at the resort. For this final meal, her son tended the fire, while nieces, nephews and grandkids helped.
“I’m just praying that things will turn around and people will start thinking after they see this,” she said. “Because it’s our people who are suffering by losing this place.”
Job losses hit the reservation recently when a lumber mill closed. The resort brings another wave of lost jobs.
Of 146 people laid off from the resort, many are tribal members. More than 100 people who live in staff apartments on the property were given until January to move out.
For the staff, the closing weekend was non-stop slammed. Plenty of employees moved on after they were given notice of the closure two months ago, so those who stayed until the end didn’t have much time for nostalgia. Ellise David thought the reality of it all still hadn’t hit her.
“For me it’s the people here, not the actual place,” said the 18-year-old, who worked at Kah-Nee-Ta’s front desk. She got a job there at 14, the legal working age on the reservation.
Roma David is her grandmother. But Ellise isn’t really interested in cooking salmon or performing dances.
“I’m into agriculture. So I like cows, plows and sows a lot,” she said with a laugh.
She was quick to smile despite the somber mood. She wore a bright red T-shirt that read, “I stand with Standing Rock,” and she compared the resort’s struggles with identity to her own.
“I’m half-white and half-Native-American. So for me growing up, I had a really hard time,” she said. “Because I always felt like I wasn’t Indian enough for my grandparents … And not white enough for a lot of people.”
Ellise said she believes closing the resort opened a rift along generational lines, between older tribal members who don’t want the place to change and younger people like her, who think it has to, even if that means closing for now.
She’d like to see the place utilized, maybe as a healing and rehabilitation center.
“But I’m more worried about that coworker [who’s] in the hospital. The waiter that just lost her job here and is trying to find other places or all the housekeepers that have been working here for so long,” she said.
She’s looking for a new job, too. And her mom and sister also worked at the resort.
With all this change, one thing is the same at Kah-Nee-Ta: Just upriver from the resort sits the natural hot springs many believe have the power to heal. They’re still flowing.