Hotels Need True Collaboration When Adding Native American Design

Hotels Need True Collaboration When Adding Native American Design

Skift Take

Paying homage to a region’s cultural and aesthetic heritage requires more sensitivity than ever before — and enhanced stewardship.

Fans of the cult classic film The Big Lebowski are undoubtedly familiar with the sweater worn by Jeff Bridges’ iconic character, The Dude. But when they first walk into a shop on the premises of Eugene, Oregon hotel Inn at the 5th, they’re probably unaware they’re seeing the pattern on that sweater, which the local Cowichan tribe created.

Visitors at the Inn at the 5th can get an educational experience at that Pendleton shop, which is accessible from the hotel’s lobby, though. The woolen goods company’s partnership with the boutique property — and its new sister hotel, the art-centric Gordon — has produced guestroom and common area designs imbued with tribal motifs.

The Inn at the 5th features a Pendleton-themed suite while a Pendleton conference room at the Gordon contains imagery and educational materials explaining its ties to local tribes’ ceremonial goods.

But representing culture and history is a more delicate balancing act than ever, said Malene Barnett, a New York-based ceramicist, textile designer, and activist.

“Far too often white-led institutions, corporations are leading these conversations without us,” said Barnett, the founder of the Black Artists + Designers Guild.

“I think it’s a conversation for us to decide how we want culture to be shared. There’s many ways that it can be shared. We understand that there is no one ‘right’ way.”  

Pendleton, however, has long made a conscientious effort to hire Native American artists as part of their creative design teams.

However, April Rodgers, a spokesperson for Pendleton Woolen Mills, sees the partnership between the Obie Companies, which runs Inn at the 5th, and Pendleton not as corporate but a relationship between two longtime family run companies.

The Cowichan tribe didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Most of the shops at the Obie-owned 5th Street Market (adjacent to Inn at the 5th) are run by small business owners. Rodgers adds there’s a sustainability aspect to the blankets and clothes that are attractive to most consumers – including the tribes contributing their designs. 

“About 98 percent of our blankets are made in the U.S. (Pendleton has) two of the four woolen mills left in America – at the (beginning of the 1900s), there were 1,000,” she said. “In Native American cultures, these are heirloom pieces that are passed around. You might get one from your grandmother, and then you’ll give it to your cousin for their wedding.”

But the recent expansion of Choctaw Casino & Resort in Oklahoma takes tribal design to the next level — with its colored resin canopy of traditional Choctaw hues in the Prizm Lounge.

But JCJ Architecture designer Amy Hull and executive director of gaming and hospitality Heidi Grant are also proud of a QR-code led Art Walk that encourages gamers and the general public to discover more about the tribe’s heritage.

“This is something that wasn’t thought of at the very beginning of the project, but the more and more we talked about integrating tribal cultural elements into the property, it naturally evolved,” Hull said. 

The decade-long collaboration between JCJ and the Choctaw nation takes initiatives like Disney’s use of cultural advisors one step further and in a positive direction, Barnett believes. She advocates giving artists a voice in such projects so they can enjoy the profits.

“There needs to be more transparency in the hotel business, making sure they’re paying artists what they are asking for, versus trying to negotiate them down,” she said.

“Hotel buyers are notorious for requesting discounts, but when you invest in the artists of any state, that really should be helping build the community.” 

At Pendleton, building the community has meant hiring Native American artists since the 1990s, creating scholarships and funding clean water programs, for instance. Associates at Obie properties and at Pendleton boutiques are also encouraged to speak with guests about the history of Pendleton and the region.

But the next step in hospitality needs to be opening up community gathering spaces for free or at a reduced cost, says Barnett.

Brands like 21 C and Kimpton are already taking such steps, while others like Beemok Hospitality Collection, which has hotels and restaurants in its portfolio, are honing in on opportunities to “make a positive impact,” said Courtney Long, a spokesperson. The new owners of The Charleston Place in South Carolina have creative license now, Long added. 

“For our Juneteenth celebration, rather than creating what we felt was appropriate, we partnered with local Gullah experts like fifth-generation sweetgrass basket weaver Corey Alston. He told us what he and others would want to see, and because of that collaboration, we have been able to create something beautiful and educational that everyone is proud of.”

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