Holly Kinney has been immersed in American Indian culture since she was a child. Born in Denver to advertising executive parents with a passion for western art and history, Mrs. Kinney spent many summer vacations on the pueblos of New Mexico, visiting with her parents’ American Indian artist friends.
When she was 9 years old, her family moved into a new house—a full-size replica of Bent’s Fort, an important 1840s adobe fur trading post that, at that time, had all but disappeared from Colorado history. In addition to living quarters, the structure was to house a living history museum to help share the story of Bent’s Fort and the Kiowa American Indians who once inhabited the area. But when construction costs got to be too high—workers made 80,000 adobe bricks by hand—the family decided to open a restaurant instead.
Since 1963, the Fort Restaurant has served traditional foods of the Early American West, such as buffalo, corn, beans and squash, sourcing recipe inspiration from historical documents and old cookbooks. When the Fort first opened, Mrs. Kinney’s family was determined to make it not just a culinary but a cultural experience as well. Servers dressed in traditional garments, the walls were adorned with American Indian art, and there was even an historical interpreter on site.
“We met Chief Big Cloud on a trip through the Black Hills in South Dakota,” recalled Mrs. Kinney, a member of Colorado DAR Chapter, Denver, Colo. “My father was so impressed with his storytelling skills that he offered to build him a cabin on our property, and he became our spokesperson.”
In addition to living alongside a Lakota chief, Mrs. Kinney also had a pet bear named Sissy, and even got the chance to wrestle a bear in her front yard when a traveling circus came through town. “As a child, I thought everyone grew up this way,” she said.
After college, Mrs. Kinney had a son, Oren, and followed in her parents’ footsteps, taking a job in advertising. By the time she was 30, she was running a successful advertising and public relations firm. But after a few years, home came calling. The Fort, under new ownership, was in disrepair and facing bankruptcy.
Mrs. Kinney’s father fought to get the Fort back, and she stepped back in and started doing marketing for it. In 1997, it was the host for the official dinner for the G-8 Summit, which convened the heads of the leading industrialized nations.
After that experience, Mrs. Kinney knew she couldn’t risk losing the Fort, so she bought 49 percent of the restaurant from her father, and they became business partners.
Today, the restaurant is more popular than ever, and Mrs. Kinney was successful in getting the building on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. In 1999 she and her father created a nonprofit organization, the Tesoro Cultural Center, to teach the public about Bent’s Fort through school tours and events, fulfilling the original vision to be a living history cultural museum.
Her father chose the name “Tesoro,” which means treasure in Spanish. Today, the Tesoro Cultural Center designs community-based events and educational outreach programs designed to celebrate Colorado’s heritage and shared experiences with Southwest, Spanish, Mexican, American Indian, African-American and Early European cultures. Mrs. Kinney won an NSDAR National Medal for Historic Preservation for her work with the Tesoro Cultural Center.
She’s also an active public servant. Recently, she served on a Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs committee to study American Indian representations in public schools. She has also served on the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board to help advocate for American Indian nations and promote travel to reservations.
“I like to think I’m helping to change hearts and minds,” Mrs. Kinney said. “I want people to know that American Indians are not a relic of the past. They are major contributors to our communities and our society. We should recognize them as the patriotic Americans that they are.”
Photo courtesy of Holly Kinney