IN the late 60's, Wendell Chino, the innovative and autocratic president of the Mescalero Apache Nation in southeastern New Mexico, surveyed some fallow fields of oats on his poor, mountainous reservation and declared the land ideal for one of his entrepreneurial brainstorms.
Mr. Chino, who died in 1998, championed economic development projects like sawmills, ski runs and legalized gambling. But before roulette wheels ever arrived, when the poorest Mescaleros still lived in canvas tents and tepees, he stunned his tribe by proposing a 250-room hotel and championship golf course, the first destination golf resort in New Mexico.
"It was completely beyond the minds of any of us here," said Freddie Peso, 67, a Mescalero sculptor and longtime tribal council member. "I knew nothing about golf or resorts. No one here played golf. And neither did Wendell Chino."
In 1975, Mr. Chino's dream was realized as the humble, all-wood Inn of the Mountain Gods, and its 7,000-foot-elevation golf course became what is believed to be the first tribal-owned course in the nation. It was an immediate hit, and it pioneered a once-unthinkable cultural curiosity: thousands of upscale duffers finding golf nirvana in remote Indian country.
Today, there are more than 50 tribal-owned courses in some 17 states, with several more under construction. From the San Carlos Apache tribe's Apache Stronghold Golf Club in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona to the Mohicans' Pine Hills Golf and Supper Club in the Wisconsin woods, tribal courses have changed Indian country's physical and cultural landscape, helped diversify the tribes' casino-dependent economies and given American golf some of its finest new playgrounds.