If you view Oregon’s Warm Springs Intertribal Reservation on Google Earth, the sparsely populated image that displays on your screen may remind you of the surface of another planet, not rural Northwest ranch land. It’s certainly rugged country, tucked between the craters and plateaus of Central-Eastern Oregon high desert, and accurate to say a satellite image does not do it justice.
This wild and scenic land of big sky and bigger vistas needs to be seen to be believed, though if you haven’t heard of Warm Springs Reservation, I’m not surprised. Few people make their home here. Horses outnumber people.
It’s far enough off the beaten-path, located along remote Highway 26, that you’re not likely to stumble upon it. If you do make the trip, you’re probably headed for Kah-Nee-Ta Resort and Spa located 11 miles from South Warm Springs, or the tribal casino situated strategically on the highway.
Oregon’s Warm Springs Reservation
We were no different. We came to Warm Springs on a weekend in May to stay at Kah-Nee-Ta.
We looked forward to spending our days swimming in the hot springs-fed swimming pool, sampling the water slides, hiking, golfing, and indulging in a spa treatment.
We had a great time. We noticed many families, the majority commuting from Portland for Central Oregon’s signature sunny weather, doing the same.
The trouble was, vacationing at Kah-Nee-Ta didn’t give us a feel for the Native American heritage of this square of land, or of its people.
Wanting more from our Warm Springs Reservation experience, we made our way to the Kah-Nee-Ta stables, where a local family (all tribal members) run an operation apart from the resort.
The stable uses Mustangs native to the area. In fact, the five we rode had been wild just five years prior. Were they the best behaved trail horses we’ve ridden? No, but they were memorable.
They gracefully picked their way up steep paths cut into the hillsides, sidestepping volcanic rock and stopping to graze the sparse desert grasses whenever they felt like it. At one point along a bluff, my son spotted another horse running the ridge line.
Pointing, he asked where its rider went. He was answered matter-of-factly by our trail leader, “Oh, that horse? Looks like he’s still wild.”
The weather was less predictable than we might have liked in late spring. That evening, we attended Kah-Nee-Ta’s traditional Salmon Bake, held indoors instead of out on the lawn overlooking the reservation. Even though we were in a conference room instead of under a wide desert sky, the salmon, cooked authentically in the native style, wowed us. The tribal dancing accompanying our meal enchanted us.
We learned the occasion and purpose for various styles of tribal dance, watched the intensity of the drum circle, and saw firsthand how the traditions of the Warm Springs, Wasco, and Paiute people are carried down today as we applauded dancers as young as age three.
The next day brought us to the Museum at Warm Springs, where our education of the previous evening was furthered by the award-winning displays and exhibits depicting the three tribes’ history spanning thousands of years.
We learned about native architecture, fishing, and hunting, diets and customs. We even were allowed to play with hoops used in dances similar to those we’d witnessed.
Driving back to Kah-Nee-Ta, the kids spotted a gaping chasm cut into the rock of a bluff overlooking the highway.
I made a hasty promise to hike to it the next day, but didn’t really mean it; surely the kids would forget about this final activity in the task of packing up. No such luck, and thank goodness. Our scramble over rocks and through sagebrush to the cave proved one of the most adventurous endeavors of the weekend.
And the reward was sweet for high over the highway, the cave–clearly a favorite campfire spot for generations–proved large and deep. From its mouth, the whole of the Warm Springs reservation seemed to open up below us. We knew better.
The reservation spans miles further than the path of the human eye in every direction. But what we had gained was far greater: the start of an authentic understanding of this wild landscape and its stewards.