DULCE, N.M. - Maybe it was the dance of history coming full circle. Most likely, though, it was just common sense.
"They don't make land no more," reasons
Jicarilla Apache Tribal President Leonard Atole, a thin smile on
his face. "So while it's there you should get some for the people."
The Jicarilla Apaches, oft-forgotten when not
simply ignored, in the last 11 years have quietly gone about
acquiring land around their fishhook-shaped reservation in north
central New Mexico.
The irony of these expansions
- most of them longtime cattle ranches owned by non-Indians - is
not lost on Atole. In the reflected light of history, land is the
one thing the Jicarilla people have often been
Now, 117 years after a federal agent
wrote, "The Jicarilla Apache has no home," and 110 years after the
tribe was forcibly moved from its traditional base by the federal
government, the home of their choice is getting
Bigger, to the tune of at least 94,000
"Land," says Atole, "is the best
investment you can make."
The Jicarilla Apaches,
by many accounts, have invested wisely. Or at least, ambitiously.
Among their purchases are some of the biggest properties in the
area adjoining their more than 800,000-acre reservation in
north-central New Mexico.
In purchasing the
Theis, El Poso and mostly recently, Willow Creek ranches for
roughly $40 million, the tribe has increased its land holdings by
at least one-tenth.
The Great Seal of the
Jicarilla Apaches, framed by an outline of the old reservation,
still hasn't caught up with the new geographic
The added land adjoins the eastern
side of the reservation, cutting through the Continental Divide and
bumping up against beautiful and valuable Heron and El Vado lakes.
The wooded hills and gasp-inspiring table-top mesas are perfect
havens for cattle grazing and wildlife.
tribe, Atole says, plans to continue those uses of the ranches -
promoting tribe-sanctioned big-game hunts and selling grazing
permits that will bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars each
Yet the move to buy land is not solely the
property, so to speak, of the Jicarillas. The Navajo Nation also
actively pursues land purchases, says Melvin Bautista, director of
land administration, who estimates the tribe has spent between $44
and $50 million on land in Arizona, New Mexico and
"We do meet with several different tribes
about land on their reservations," says Bautista. "Most of them
(other tribes) are smaller, most are in worse shape as to
ownership. They look to buy and purchase land to consolidate their
reservation. Their problem is they don't have funds, whereas the
Navajo Nation has some funds it can generate from resources."
The same holds true for the Jicarillas, whose
oil and gas holdings have created a dependable natural resources
Atole says it's the Jicarillas' vision of
how to care for the land - not just their willingness to buy it -
that entices potential sellers.
To prove his
point, Atole, sitting behind a big desk in his small office at
tribal headquarters in Dulce, pulls out a variety of manila folders
filled with information about available acreage from Antonito,
Colo., to Cimarron, N.M.
"People approach us,"
says the 51-year-old Atole, who has been elected president four
times. "But we are mainly interested in land that adjoins the
The centerpiece of the tribe's
purchases is the 1985 acquisition of the 54,843-acre Theis Ranch
located between Horse Lake and Los Ojos in Rio Arriba
The tribe, which calls the property Horse
Lake Ranch, reportedly bought the parcel for more than $24 million.
An attorney for Locke Theis, one of the former owners of the ranch,
says the relationship between the Jicarillas and the land was a key
factor in the transaction.
"One of the features
at play here was that the Jicarillas have tremendous respect for
the land," says attorney C. Mott Woolley, who adds that Theis'
advancing years prompted his decision to retire and sell the
"They (the Jicarillas) shared Mr. Theis'
love of the land," Woolley continues. "Mr. Theis is very pleased
with the stewardship they have undertaken."
Atole acknowledges the tribe and former owners
seem to agree on what the land should look like - which is to say
there are no plans to turn it into a resort for condos, dude
ranches and the like.
"When Theis had it, he used
it for cattle, which we do," Atole says. "He didn't want to see it
developed, with developers coming in. He probably figured we would
leave it the way it is."
However, Ron Julian,
director of community development for the Jicarilla Tribe, says the
tribal council has been approached about putting quarter-acre or
half-acre homesites on land near Heron Dam to help relieve a
housing shortage for young Indian residents.
without major alterations to the landscape, the expansion has not
gone without notice by some in the tribe. Tom Vigil, who runs a
popular hotel in Dulce in partnership with the tribe, says some
Jicarillas didn't understand the need for land when the purchases
first became known.
"But I can't say there was
much controversy," he says. "The only thing was that we were
spending hard-earned cash and some people can't see the value in
that. But people mostly see it as an investment in the future."
Atole says that in addition to its new land
holdings, the tribe owns hotels in Orlando, Fla., and Jackson, Wyo.
There are investments overseas, as well.
heady moves would be in keeping with the tribe's forward-looking
financial strategies. In her book The Jicarilla Apache Tribe,
historian/author Veronica Velarde Tiller writes that the tribe
issued a first-of-its-kind, tax-free bond issue worth more than $30
million in 1985.
Proceeds from the initiative
helped purchase the Theis Ranch, and blazed a path for other
"We bought the El Poso with investment
money," Atole says, as he escorts visitors on a bone-grinding,
four-wheel-drive tour of the new expansions. "The Theis we bought
through the bond issue. The Willow Creek (which will be used to
house a youth agricultural program) we bought outright."
Atole is not given to displays of emotion. But
his happiness is evident as he gets out of the vehicle and takes a
long look back at the Horse Lake and El Poso ranches. He tells the
story about a recent summer vacation with his family - a journey
through the Rocky Mountain West that took him to several Indian
"Some of them are developed," he
says. "Some of them are busy; they look like the highway between
Albuquerque and Santa Fe."
Atole pauses and
gives one last look at a placid, quiet Western skyline. It is a
view that fills one's eye with Jicarilla
"Now that," he says, "that is a
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