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A new Apache homeland in New Mexico?

An Okie Apache fights his kin to build a casino and bring his people home.

 

When you live in the heart of New Mexico's Gila Country, as I do, few experiences are more haunting than a visit to the Apache prisoner-of-war cemetery at Fort Sill, Okla., over 700 miles away.

The cemetery is located in a remote corner of the 70,000-acre base, home to 40,000 soldiers associated with the Army's Field Artillery School. The deciduous trees are thick and tall, the grass is lush, and nearby Beef Creek is much prettier than its soupy appellation might indicate. Absent the regular cannon fire and the 100-plus graves -- all carefully marked by Christian crosses -- it would make a nice picnic spot.

At the center, surrounded by towering hardwoods and topped by an eagle sculpted from stone, stands the cemetery's only actual monument. This is where the legendary Apache is buried: Goyahkla ("One Who Yawns"), whose nom de guerre, bestowed on him by Mexican soldiers, is still bellowed like a war cry by young boys cannonballing off the high dive. More recently, it was used to denote Operation Neptune Spear's ultimate goal: the death of Osama bin Laden. It's a name that has never lost its power: Geronimo.

His memorable -- some would say notorious -- place in history notwithstanding, Geronimo was never an actual chief. He was an "expedition leader," one step below war chief. Yet he was instrumental in waging a brutal guerrilla war against both the U.S. and Mexico for more than 40 years, and his daring exploits helped imprint the word "Apache" on the nation's psyche.

That war, of course, did not take place in rural Oklahoma. It unfolded far away in the territory of seven major linguistic groups and 30-plus tribes, bands and clans, difficult to differentiate but all clumsily classified as "Apachean." For 800 or so years, the Apaches roamed from southern Colorado to Texas to modern-day New Mexico and Arizona, as well as in the northern reaches of Chihuahua and Sonora.

Then came Manifest Destiny and its scorched-earth campaigns against the Native Americans. The Apache story did not end there, of course, though it lay half-hidden in legal and cultural purgatory for many years.

The descendants of the two bands with which Geronimo was affiliated, the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache -- which occupied territory in what is now southwest New Mexico and southeast Arizona -- are scattered hither and yon. They have no real center and no real reservation from which to maintain or re-establish the tattered remnants of their heritage, making them one of the most noteworthy orphaned tribes in the nation.

Now, though, almost out of the blue, the winds of resurrection are beginning to blow, rising at times to near-gale force. The Oklahoma-based Fort Sill Apache Tribe -- Geronimo's officially recognized successor -- is trying to regain a foothold in its original territory around Silver City, N.M. It's a gloriously rugged landscape, with abysses almost as deep as the Grand Canyon, ponderosa-covered plateaus, mountain ranges reaching nearly 11,000 feet, the fertile Gila, San Francisco and Mimbres river valleys and some of North America's highest concentrations of hot springs.

As righteous, and long-overdue, as this effort to correct a historic wrong may appear, it has stirred up a stunning amount of controversy -- not just between Geronimo's descendants and the state of New Mexico, but also between the Fort Sill Apaches and others whose ancestors also lie buried at the Oklahoma cemetery, and between Fort Sill and the several hundred folks around Silver City who claim they are every bit as much Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache as Geronimo was.

The outcome will have direct ramifications on the highest-profile Native American repatriation effort in U.S. history.

That is, if the argumentative underpinnings of the entire issue are not unadulterated bunk, as many people in the Apache homelands will tell you.

It is impossible to say exactly when the "Apache Wars" commenced; skirmishes and raids had been recorded in Mexico as early as 1685. But they officially ended on Sept. 4, 1886, when Geronimo surrendered to Gen. Nelson Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Ariz., after a campaign in which Miles deployed 5,000 soldiers, 500 Apache scouts, 100 Navajo scouts and thousands of civilian militia members to hunt down a mere 25 or so weary Chiricahua and Warm Springs warriors.

By this time, most of the other Apaches had been rounded up and confined to reservations, and many Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache had been forcibly resettled on the San Carlos Reservation, which was established in 1872 in Arizona. After Geronimo's surrender, U.S. military forces scoured the countryside and detained every Chiricahua and Warm Spring Apache they found, the assumption being that, if they weren't already on a reservation, as mandated by law, they were probably Geronimo sympathizers. All told, about 500 other Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache -- including many of the scouts the U.S. government employed to hunt down Geronimo -- were taken into custody as prisoners of war by Miles.

They were put on trains at Fort Bowie, Ariz., and sent to Texas, then to Florida –– where they were held for a year and displayed to curious tourists –– and then to Alabama. After more than eight years of being carted around, they were sent to Fort Sill to live out the rest of their days as exiles.

During their Southeastern incarceration, the forced fragmentation of the people continued, as many children were sent north to a boarding school in faraway Carlisle, Penn. There, they lived in horrendous conditions, stripped of their language, culture and very identity, and never again reunited with their families.

By the time Geronimo's clan arrived in Oklahoma, there were little more than 300 survivors, according to Fort Sill Apache Tribe historian Michael Darrow.

The Chiricahua were promised their own reservation at Fort Sill. But they had also been promised four different reservations in their homeland in the 1860s and 1870s, all of which were revoked by the government for undisclosed reasons before they were even inhabited. Likewise, the Fort Sill promise was broken when local officials lobbied the government to put the proposed reservation on the Army base instead.

In February 1909, Geronimo was thrown from a horse while riding home alone at night. He was found the next day by a friend, badly injured. He contracted pneumonia and died six days later at age 80.

In 1913, the remaining Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache at Fort Sill received an ultimatum: Move to the Mescalero Apache Reservation in south-central New Mexico, still far from their historic territory, or remain incarcerated. It was a rotten choice, one Darrow says was designed to eliminate future land claims.

Two-thirds of the prisoners of war -- 183 people -- accepted the offer, ultimately assimilating into a tribe that was only distantly related to them. The remaining 78 opted to stay at Fort Sill, where, one year later, they were finally freed from their 28-year captivity by an act of Congress and given small, scattered individual allotments of local farmland. No formal reservation was ever established for them in Oklahoma.

The descendants of those 78 people became, in time, the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, which the Bureau of Indian Affairs recognizes as the only legal heirs to the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache –– a political definition that understandably raises hackles among Apaches back in the ancestral homeland.

The Fort Sill Apache Tribe is headquartered just outside the appropriately named village of Apache, population 2,000, about 20 minutes from the cemetery. It's set in a pleasant landscape, surrounded by heavily wooded rolling hills laced with slow-moving streams. But it's a far cry from the spectacular wildlands where the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache once roamed unfettered.

Boarded-up storefronts dominate the downtown, while a few rundown convenience stores dot the periphery. The sidewalks are cracked and most of the houses could use a fresh coat of paint. There are several billboards advertising the annual rattlesnake festival, the town's biggest event, which draws 50,000 visitors. The only obvious acknowledgement of Apache's Native American presence is a 24-hour prayer teepee, an incongruous mating of Bible Belt theology with historic inaccuracy: The Apache were never teepee dwellers.

The Fort Sill Apache administrative building, built in 1984, resembles a well-tended small-town library, with its clean bricks, large windows and nicely coiffed lawn.

Jeff Haozous, chairman of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, ushered me into the tidy library/conference room, whose walls are adorned by paintings of Apache luminaries. Although gracious and forthcoming, Haozous also seemed a bit uncomfortable. Because of the recent repatriation efforts, he and the Fort Sill Apaches have been in the news more in the past decade than they have at any time since Geronimo's death.

Haozous has expertly controlled the flow of all repatriation-related information with the help of Agenda-Global, a large public relations firm with offices all over the country. In fact, all of my initial attempts to interview him were filtered through Agenda-Global, a completely unacceptable setup for a journalist. This is what prompted my journey to Oklahoma.

The old photos of the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache show a small, wiry people with extremely dark skin. Haozous, however, is tall and green-eyed with a light complexion. His mother was white; his Chiricahua father was a direct descendent of the famed Apache Chief Mangas Coloradas, who in turn was the father-in-law of Chief Cochise.

Haozous was born in Norman, Okla., but spent most of his early life in Arkansas, where his father worked as a state fishery biologist. Haozous earned a B.S. in business administration from the University of Arkansas and an MBA from Duke University. He was a database and Internet marketing professional prior to becoming involved with the tribal government. Though he had visited family in the Fort Sill area over the years, he had never lived there; like many Fort Sill Apaches, he spent his entire life pretty much immersed in white culture. For most of his 51 years, Haozous even bore the phoneticized spelling of his surname: Houser.

"In 2001, I came back to visit my aunt, Ruey Darrow, who was the chairperson of the tribe," Haozous says. "I had been interested in learning more about my Apache heritage. I hadn't planned on staying. But I never left. The next year, my aunt retired and I was elected chairman," a position Haozous likens more to a small-town mayor than a traditional chief.

Haozous became chairman of the 700-member Fort Sill Apache Tribe -- only about half of whom live in the Fort Sill area -- at a time when, for lack of a better analogy, a lot of dominoes were falling in a lot of different directions simultaneously.

Though the Fort Sill Apaches were freed from their prisoner-of-war status in 1914, they didn't write a tribal charter until 1976, in part because there was no real means for a tribe without a reservation to achieve functioning legal status.

Soon after the Indian Claims Commission was formed by Congress in 1946, the descendants of the Apache prisoners of war who still resided in the Fort Sill area came together and filed two suits, one dealing with land and the other with mineral rights. It took the commission three decades to get through its huge backlog of claims, and, in 1975, it awarded the tribe $14 million -- one dollar for each of the estimated 14 million acres of the tribe's ancestral homeland located within U.S. borders. Two-thirds of that was sent to the Mescalero Reservation in New Mexico, in line with the percentage of Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches who moved there in 1913. Another 10 percent went to attorneys' fees. That left about $4.2 million for the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, which dispersed 80 percent to its members (about $4,800 each), while keeping the remaining $840,000 in tribal coffers.

It wasn't much, but the money did enable the Fort Sill Apaches to begin the long process of trying to re-build their culture from the ground up.

"Until that point, our people were very poor," Haozous says. "None of our members spoke Apache. We had lost many of our traditions. We had forgotten many of the old dances and ceremonies. That settlement gave us the opportunity to start reclaiming our heritage."

The settlement also gave the Fort Sill Apache Tribe something more important than money: official tribal existence and federal recognition as the legal heirs of the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache.

But cultural reclamation was worthless without economic reclamation. Lacking oil or gas or other natural resources, the Fort Sill Apaches turned, like many resource-poor tribes, to gambling. In 1999, using the settlement cash, the tribe bought a half-acre of land in Lawton, Okla., and 30 acres in Akela Flats, N.M., intending to use both parcels to open casinos, thus joining what are now 241 tribes operating nearly 500 casinos across the U.S.

It wasn't easy. Turns out that the Lawton land, purchased on the open market from a private citizen, had once been held in trust by the federal government for the Comanches, another tribe that had been forcibly moved to southwest Oklahoma in the late-1800s. The Comanches have their own casino in Lawton, only a mile away from the proposed Apache emporium, and, fearing the competition, they took the Fort Sill Apaches to court. That suit was dropped only after the Fort Sill Apaches agreed to never purchase land formerly owned by another tribe.

"That really handcuffed our people," Haozous laments. In 2008, however, the tribe finally opened its Lawton casino, and the proceeds have since helped send 36 members to college and establish social programs for at-risk youth and senior citizens. About half of the casino profits go to the tribe and the other half is dispersed on a per capita basis to members. But the agreement with the Comanches made expanding or building a new casino in the area virtually impossible, because most of the available property was at one time Indian trust land.

That 30-acre parcel in New Mexico, however, was fair game.

Soon after purchasing the land for $30,000, the Fort Sill Apache Tribe began the process of establishing a reservation there. The application, according to Haozous, was given a leg up because of the restrictive nature of the settlement his tribe had made with the Comanches in Oklahoma. In November 2011, the Akela Flats parcel became the country's newest Indian reservation: Apache Homelands.

"There are more than 100 casinos in Oklahoma," Haozous says. "The Comanches have five. The Chickasaws have 20. We have one, and, while that is maybe enough to sustain the status quo, it is not enough for us to repatriate our people back into our historic territory. And that is our goal."

Haozous says the tribe plans to build a 30,000-square-foot casino on the Apache Homelands Reservation and use the gambling proceeds to buy more land in the ancestral homelands, where tribal members could then relocate.

"I believe there are members of our tribe who would be interested in moving down there," Haozous says. "We've had tribal members who moved from other parts of the country to Oklahoma so they could be closer to their culture. I was one of those."

In a state where century-old abandoned, crumbling adobe foundations merit inclusion on highway maps, the only nod Akela Flats gets from Rand-McNally is an exit icon -- number 102 --on Interstate 10 between Deming and Las Cruces.

That's because Akela Flats lies in the heart of country that makes even ardent Chihuahuan Desert devotees accelerate toward, well, pretty much anywhere else. The hot wind blows incessantly. Dust devils often obscure the otherwise impressively jagged Florida Mountains. The vegetation consists of little more than creosote, prickly pear and cholla cactus so scraggly a lizard would be hard-pressed to find a decent patch of shade.

In late 2008, at the site of the proposed casino, the Fort Sill Apache Tribe sought to establish a visible presence by constructing a building that looks like a cross between Southwest vernacular architecture and something straight out of a Cold War-era Moscow suburb. Inside, there's an impressive interpretive display outlining the long history of injustice the U.S. government visited upon the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache. There is also a low-key restaurant most noteworthy for serving breakfast all day.

Even with the new building, Akela Flats is just an armpit. Even with a 30,000-square-foot casino, it will be an armpit. The Taj Mahal could not mitigate the woefulness of this parcel. But what it lacks in rudimentary aesthetics, it makes up for with its proximity to Interstate 10, the primary asphalt artery for the entire Southwest. When you're in the casino business, this is important.

Still, one thing is painfully clear: No matter the real estate value, no one in his right mind is going to reconnect to his ancestral homeland via this crappy patch of dirt. If any members of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe are serious about relocating to New Mexico, it's surely going to be via Haozous' plan to acquire additional, and more appealing, ancestral land somewhere else. Apache Homelands might go down in history as the only Indian reservation in the country with a population of zero.

The 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act allowed legally recognized tribes with official reservations to establish casinos with little hassle. Reservations and tribes recognized after 1988 must either apply to the Bureau of Indian Affairs or directly petition the secretary of the Interior for a permit, and the state's governor must sign off on the application.

Fort Sill is pursuing both routes, but the applications' status seems to be something of a state secret. A BIA spokesperson acknowledged that an application has been submitted; Haozous allows only that final documents are being prepared as we speak. And Gary Meyers, who works at Apache Homelands' Deming office, responded to my questions with an opaque email that said the Department of Interior will try to determine whether the casino is in the best interest of the tribe and the community.

The Fort Sill Apaches have been working hard to prove that the proposed casino would indeed be in the best interest of the region. In January, Haozous and Agenda-Global obtained the support of the city council of Las Cruces, New Mexico's second-largest city, a half-hour from Akela Flats. Other nearby counties and towns are supportive, not simply to right historic wrongs, but also for the economic boost and jobs a casino could bring.

Luna County, home of the proposed casino, could use the boost. The rural county has an unemployment rate of almost 20 percent, and 30 percent of its 25,000 inhabitants live below the poverty line. The economy has traditionally relied on agriculture and food processing, but there are also a few small manufacturers. The Border Patrol is among the biggest employers.

The proposed casino would provide 250-300 jobs -- about the same as the Apache Casino in Lawton, says Haozous -- ranging from minimum-wage janitorial gigs to tipped positions, such as waitstaff, with a few six-figure positions for higher-ups. That would put it in the county's top five employers. And though most Native American casinos prefer to hire tribal members, there would be little if any preference shown to Fort Sill tribal members, something also true of the Lawton casino. That's because there simply aren't enough tribal members to fill all those jobs.

"We only have about 10 of our people working at our casino in Oklahoma," Haozous says. "We simply don't have a very large employment base. So we provide lots of jobs for (non-tribal) people in the community."

As well, the Lawton casino provides tax revenues to both the state and to the city. Oklahoma casinos are required to pay 4 percent of the adjusted gross revenues -- profits after payouts -- earned by slot machines, poker, blackjack, craps and the like to the state. The Apache Casino paid the state $1.5 million in 2012, though it's impossible to figure out how much the casino actually makes because operating costs are not public information.

Because the Akela Flats Casino would be located on a legally established reservation, its property and sales tax burdens in New Mexico would be essentially nonexistent, an issue that rankles Luna County Commissioner Javier Diaz.

"We met with Mr. Haozous about the fact that we would be providing essential services to the casino, like police and fire, but we would be getting no direct tax revenue to support those services in return," Diaz says, adding that there's no guarantee the casino jobs would be held by people living in Luna County as opposed to workers commuting from Las Cruces or elsewhere.

There is little doubt, though, that the proposed casino would help the economies of nearby towns. Casino patrons would likely eat and stay in Deming and Las Cruces, since the tribe currently has no plans to build a hotel on the reservation. And Haozous estimates that construction of the casino will cost between $10 million and $20 million, another infusion of cash into local communities.

But things have not gone smoothly for the Fort Sill Tribe at Akela Flats, thanks in part to persistent opposition from the New Mexico government. In early 2008, after the tribe attempted to open a high-stakes bingo parlor in a temporary structure on the property, then-Gov. Bill Richardson ordered state police to block access to it because the tribe lacked authorization for a gambling operation. In response, the tribe compared the action to "Gov. Wallace blocking the school house door ... in the 1960s."

Current New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez also opposes the proposed Akela Flats Casino, because, according to her press office, the tribe purportedly promised back in 2002 not to build a casino there. Haozous says that is simply not true. Martinez refused to answer repeated questions over whether her opposition has anything to do with the state's other tribes' fear of more gambling competition.

This is more than just a modern manifestation of historic disputes based on, say, tribal access to hunting grounds or water sources. This is Big Business. Nationwide, Native American casinos pull in nearly $28 billion per year, and New Mexico's Indian casinos last year had a collective "net win" -- the amount wagered on gambling minus payouts and fees -- of $182 million. While that number is steadily growing, so is the number of casinos sharing it in the state; the Navajo Nation alone has opened four big casinos in the last five years, three of them in New Mexico. It's only natural that tribes with existing casinos would want to keep competition at bay, and pull the necessary political strings to do so. Tribes are among the nation's top lobbyists on casino and gaming issues, and casino-owning tribes, especially, have been known to be generous in their political contributions.

Currently, the nearest Indian casino to Akela Flats is the Mescalero Apaches' Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort and Casino near Ruidoso, which draws heavily from the Las Cruces and El Paso market. In August 2011, then-Mescalero Apache Tribal President Mark Chino voiced his opposition to a proposed Akela Flats casino in testimony before the New Mexico Legislature's Interim Indian Affairs Committee. Mescalero officials also opposed an attempt by the Jemez Pueblo, northwest of Albuquerque, to build an off-reservation casino in Anthony, N.M., near El Paso.

Mescalero's opposition puts the descendants of the 187 Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache who moved to that reservation from Fort Sill in 1913 in an awkward position: They are enrolled members of a tribe that opposes a move that some of their closest relatives believe essential to the return of their people to their ancestral homeland. But they wouldn't be included in that repatriation effort anyway, because the Fort Sill Tribe's enrollment rules stipulate that members not only must be directly descended from the Apache prisoners of war, but also have never been members of another legally recognized tribe.

Paul Ortega, who once served as tribal chairman for the Mescalero Apaches, blames greed for his tribe's opposition to the proposal. "The other tribes don't want to risk having another tribe applying for a casino permit in areas that might compete with their own casinos," he says. And the Mescalero have worked hard to gain influence, spending nearly $1.6 million on lobbyists since 2002, mostly regarding gaming issues, along with donating a bundle of cash to state and national politicians.

Meanwhile, the Fort Sill Apaches have done their best to curry favor with Gov. Martinez, donating $10,000 to her last campaign, apparently to no avail. Haozous told me that if Martinez continues to oppose the construction of his tribe's proposed casino, then the Fort Sill Apache Tribe "will just wait until there's a new governor. We've been waiting a long time."

Martinez plans to run for re-election in 2014.

Yet another complication stands in the way of Haozous and his tribe's efforts: Their own kin. Scattered far beyond their ancestral homelands, there may be as many as 75,000 direct descendants of Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches who never surrendered, were never captured and never moved onto reservations. And some of those unaffiliated descendants have come together to instigate their own repatriation efforts, in essence, rivaling the attempts of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe.

The most prominent of these groups are the Chihene Nde' Nation of New Mexico, which consists primarily of descendants of Warm Springs Apaches who once resided on scattered Spanish land grants throughout southwest New Mexico, and the Chiricahua Apache Nde' Nation, made up of people who claim Chiricahua descent. The two groups each have about 1,200 members.

The Chihene Nde' Nation is a nonprofit corporation with an elected tribal council. According to Chairman Manuel Sanchez, who lives in Los Angeles, would-be tribal members must prove their ancestors were indigenous to the general area of the land grants.

The Chihene Nde' Nation has worked to get official tribal recognition from the BIA for more than 30 years, an effort that the Fort Sill Apache Tribe -- unwilling to give up its status as the only legal heir to the Apaches who once dwelled in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona -- has emphatically opposed.

Haozous contends that there were no remnant populations of Chiricahua or Warm Springs Apache left in southwest New Mexico or southeast Arizona after Geronimo's surrender in 1886. "I don't think there were any of our people left there," he says firmly. "They were threatened with death if they stayed after Geronimo's surrender. Family is extremely important to our people, yet you never hear anyone talking about family members being left behind after 1886, or of anyone going back to visit family members. If there were Chiricahua or Warm Springs Apache left behind in our ancestral homeland, our people would know it."

"Well, I am proof that he's wrong," says Joe Saenz, a Chiricahua who owns and operates WolfHorse Outfitters in Arenas Valley, N.M., six miles east of Silver City.

Saenz serves as secretary of State for the Chiricahua Apache Nde' Nation, a loosely knit group of people who claim to be of Chiricahua extraction. "Though we do have one member who reviews applications, we generally take people at their word, and, if appropriate, we point them to San Carlos, Mescalero or Fort Sill to help them establish their family history," says Saenz, who feels his group's lack of rigid structure is in keeping with traditional Apache governmental style.

Saenz estimates that there are about 250 people of verifiable Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache extraction living in the Silver City area. Chickie Beltran, a member of the Chiricahua Apache Nde' Nation who lives in Pinos Altos, N.M., seven miles north of Silver City, echoes the statement: "(Haozous) is obviously not familiar with the free Apaches that were never taken prisoner or put on a reservation."

"Or he refuses to accept them for political reasons," Chickie's sister, Gloria, adds. "Our grandfather's mom was in Geronimo's band and she married into the Torres family. That's how a lot of Apache evaded capture -- they pretended to be Mexican."

Indeed, according to Dan L. Thrapp's book, Conquest of Apacheria, a group of Chiricahua, called the Bronco Apaches, refused to surrender and took refuge in Mexico's Sierra Madre. They continued to raid across the border into Arizona until 1924, 40 years after the U.S. government declared "mission accomplished" in the Apache Wars.

Even Darrow, the Fort Sill Apache's tribal historian, admits that not all Chiricahua were taken prisoner or moved onto reservation lands.

"There were a small number, probably fewer than 20, of Chiricahua Apaches who were not imprisoned or on reservations when the majority were imprisoned," Darrow wrote in an email.

In any event, members of both Nde' Nations (Nde', meaning "The People," is the Apaches' word for themselves) tend to be skeptical of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe's motives.

"I feel that if the members of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe truly wanted to move back here, they would already be here," says Richard Montoya, a southwest New Mexico resident and Chihene Nde' Nation councilmember. "What's stopping them? I don't believe they want to move down here. I think they just want the money from the casino."

Saenz, too, believes his Oklahoma cousins simply want to use the Apache Homelands as a conduit for extracting money from New Mexico and using it for the tribe in Oklahoma. But, he adds, "If they are sincere about moving back, I wish them luck."

Whatever the motivation, Haozous and the Fort Sill Apache seem to be moving, symbolically at least, toward home again –– westward toward their ancestral territory. The tribe is in the process of changing its name to the Chiricahua/Warm Springs Apache Tribe. Haozous says his tribe is laying the groundwork for compiling an Apache dictionary, so that members can start to re-learn their language.

The tribe also owns several parcels of land within its ancestral territory -- 20 acres received as a trade from a member in the northern corner of what is now the Gila National Forest, near Winston, N.M., and four acres at the base of Cochise's Stronghold, a rugged area in southeast Arizona, from where the great chief and about 1,000 of his followers staged raids for more than 15 years. Haozous said the tribe is in the process of acquiring more land in Arizona, as well. But those parcels are all too remote to serve as springboards for the repatriation that he has in mind.

Haozous refuses to speculate whether the tribe would try to build a casino in Arizona. He plays his cards close to the vest when addressing their plans for that land.

There are those who contend that the main reason Geronimo was forced to surrender in 1886 -- a decision he regretted for the rest of his life -- was that the U.S. government employed or coerced his own kinsmen to help track him down.

At least partly because of that bitter history,  the area that long served as the homeland for the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache has, for 127 years, been all but sterilized of its cultural heritage. Here in the Southwest, so rich in Native American history and culture, that seems especially tragic.

Just when it appears that the arc of history is bending ever so slightly in favor of the original residents of this lonely part of the West, intra-tribal conflict has again arisen to complicate everything. Now, that conflict has moved from Geronimo's old stomping grounds all the way to the governmental halls of Santa Fe and Washington, D.C. Final dispensation lies in the hands of elected officials, bureaucrats and lobbyists hired by tribes who sometimes appear more interested in protecting their fiscal turf than they are in preserving their heritage.

Several years ago, the Chiricahua Apache Nde' Nation spearheaded construction of a Geronimo Memorial at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. This year, the group helped build an interpretive display at Gila Hot Springs, and dedicated it in September.  The Chiricahua Apache Nde' Nation has also sponsored the Red Paint Powwow at Western New Mexico University in Silver City for nine years.

The Fort Sill Apache Tribe has not participated.

And the Chihene Nde' Nation of New Mexico, which opposes the proposed Akela Flats casino, has tried to establish a post-traumatic stress disorder treatment program for military veterans. At nearby Fort Bayard State Hospital, it would be based upon Native American healing practices. The group says it failed to generate any interest whatsoever from Fort Sill.

That lack of common ground frustrates and saddens a lot of people who should have a common goal, or so it would seem: the restoration of the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches to their rightful place.

"What Haozous doesn't seem to understand is that we can help each other," says Carlos Provencio, a Chihene Nde' Nation councilmember who lives near Silver City, N.M. "While I am opposed to casinos, we could help the Fort Sill Apache reintegrate with their ancestral homeland. We know the language. They do not. We know the land. They do not."

"I have never heard Jeff Haozous say anything about the land he supposedly wants to move his people back to," says Carlos Benavides, another Chihene Nde' councilmember. "Everything he talks about is economics. Those of us who live here have grown up with this land. We love this land. He only looks at it as a potential source of revenue."

"Now you know why we lost the Indian Wars," says Chiricahua Apache Nde' Nation member Gloria Beltran, half-smiling. But only half-smiling.

M. John Fayhee is the author of 10 books, including, most recently, The Colorado Mountain Companion and Smoke Signals, which was a finalist in the 2012 Colorado Book Awards. For 13 years, Fayhee was the editor of the Mountain Gazette. He lives in Silver City, N.M.

This story was funded in part by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.