When course architect Gene Bates agreed to design the Coeur d’Alene Tribe's Circling Raven Golf Club in Idaho, he understood that building for the future meant preserving the past. Bates is not the only course architect to receive such a tribal directive
Seventeen years ago, when the Coeur d’Alene Native American tribe tapped Gene Bates to design Circling Raven Golf Club, the Florida-based architect inherited a blank canvas seemingly as far and wide as the sky.
The land, located in the scenic Idaho panhandle, boasted of more than 620 acres that were concentrated among wetlands, woodlands and Palouse grasses — a common trait among Native American courses — next to its casino.
To put it into perspective, that’s almost four times the amount of land normally used on most U.S. courses.
Besides desiring a top-notch course, the Coeur d’Alene, owners and operators of the club, had one other request of Bates — that Mother Earth be protected. That’s because land is viewed as a sacred gift from the Creator, essential to tribes’ history and legend. Without being bromidic, Native American spiritualism plays an imperative role on an almost imperceptible level. The trees, land, animals — any living thing, mainly — is cherished and has a unique place and voice.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe website provides a concise overview of the mindset: “Because there was always a commitment to the future, so there will always be a commitment to the past.”
To Bates, it was as transparent as a mirror. Growing up in a rural Ohio town rich in Native American history, Bates entered the project well-versed knowing how to respect the culture.
“They wanted to make sure, and were very firm, that we use the land very wisely in the sense that it respected the wetland environment, it respected wildlife corridors and that we didn’t massively clear trees,” said Bates, recently called on again to renovate Circling Raven. “It was just their expectation of me using their land wisely to achieve what their request is for a special golf course.”
The final result? A pristine 7,189-yard, par-72 track that features more than eight miles of cart path, routing that takes players around and through the wetlands and a tunnel under the Burlington Railroad track that connects the rest of the course.
Circling Raven, named for a seminal tribal chief, has been listed as one of Golf Digest’s Top 100 U.S. courses, rated the third-best pubic course in Idaho by the magazine in 2015 and cited by Golf Magazine as one of the Reader’s Choice Top 50 Resort Courses.
All that aside, Circling Raven represents just one of about 60 Native American-owned designs in the U.S. That’s among more than 13,000 courses in the country.
“Native American owned courses appeal to golfers for several reasons – they often have wonderful land to work with; their land is sacred to them, so they treat it with the utmost care and pay homage to their ancestors; and tribal courses often do not have any surrounding development,” said Dan Shepherd, owner, NAGolfCourses.com. “Further, many of the courses are amenities of casino resorts, which means they’re loss leaders with outstanding designs by top course architects. Collectively, Native American Golf is as good as it gets.”
In many cases, courses can be built with flexibility in design, instead of being confined to cookie cutter layouts on 120-acres. Those projects, of course, tend to be limited in scope due to homes or other existing developments. Designers have to find a way around those things.
Michigan-based architect, Paul Albanese, has completed three Native American courses and done designs for six. In constructing the award-winning Sweetgrass (2008) and Sage Run (2018) courses in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Albanese, a Harvard graduate, infused tribal heritage and culture into the designs in order to appeal to even the non-golfer. The two championship-style courses transcend golf into educational walks.
For starters, Sweetgrass and Sage Run pay homage to Potawatomi tribal tradition.
“We selected sage because we wanted to highlight another of our four traditional tribal medicines – along with cedar, tobacco and sweet grass,” said tribal member Tony Mancilla, Island Resort and Casino general manager, when Sage Run opened in 2018. “The word ‘run’ in the name references the 10 holes that traverse significantly downhill on the course.”
In an honorable touch to the Hannahville Community tribe, which is a band of the Potawatomi nation, Sweetgrass’ 18th hole is coined “Seven Grandfathers (Noeg Gmeshomsenanek)” and showcases seven bunkers. According to Potawatomi tradition, seven grandfathers were handed great responsibility by the Creator to look after the people.
Albanese knew he’d be dealing with sovereign territory when he accepted the tribe’s offer. Hannahville Community owns and operates Island Resort & Casino, where both courses reside.
“You’re dealing with another country in many ways,” said Albanese. “They are a sovereign nation. For that reason, we have to deal with many politics, a political atmosphere that might be a little different than the U.S. government, or any state or country government. They have different laws and different rules, and that’s been a challenge, but a workable challenge. Very reasonable and easy to work with, but the mechanisms by the way you get things done are different from other governments.”
In Island Resort & Casino’s case, the local tribal population contributed significantly to both courses’ construction, imbuing a sense of pride, he added.
“We hire [tribal members] on as our crew and so there’s this real feeling of ownership of them creating this entity,” said Albanese.
Therein lies the rub. Pride is borne out of respect and mindfulness of the land. Albanese’s respect grew exponentially handling both projects, while also keeping focus on locking in the designs to the land without moderate disruption.
To that end, designing courses of this magnitude likens to metaphorically locking puzzle pieces together, but ensuring it’s done naturally. Each design represents a story, Albanese and Bates both inferred, creating principles that acutely meld experiences with aesthetics. Moreover, it’s about bringing out the best qualities without disturbing the land from an environmental standpoint.
“The land to [tribes] has been that way for thousands of years and we want the golf course to feel, if you will, like it’s been there for thousands of years,” said Albanese.
There may be no better example of respecting the land more than the Squaxin Island Tribe. While Bates developed its Salish Cliffs Golf Club — which has won a slew of awards — in western Washington in 2011, the tribe stipulated no adverse long-term environmental effects to the 300-plus acres used. In the process, it become the first-ever U.S. property to earn the Salmon-Safe Golf Course Certification.
What resonates most, though, are the visceral experiences. It’s more illuminating than past vestiges being incorporated into Native American courses, for it’s hard not to feel connected to the culture. At Salish Cliffs Golf Club, for instance, golfers are immediately struck by carved wood within the clubhouse that celebrates the tribe’s ancestry. Course signage, tee and yardage markers, and logoed balls are fashioned toward tribal essence.
In the end, Bates and Albanese agreed all their tribal projects were not only immersive but educational as well.
“They gave me the tools and the resources and everything to do what I knew I could do,” said Bates. “It’s all a big circle. If the tribe is happy with the way the players are happy and the way that it augments the resort and the way it pays for itself, well doggone it, I think we did a wonderful job in achieving what was expected of us.
“The thing about the whole experience, for me, with the Coeur d’Alene and the Squaxin tribes, is that I came away with so really wonderful, special, to-this-day friends. That is really as special to me as the golf courses. I respect those people and the return respect they give me is awesome.”