A new Apache homeland in New Mexico?

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

  • Ancestral homelands of the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache bands in southwestern New Mexico, where the new Apache Homelands Indian Reservation shares an exit with the Akela Flats Trading Post.

    Jay Hemphill
  • Fort Sill Apache Chairman Jeff Haozous.

    Jay Hemphill
  • Geronimo, c. 1890, after his capture.

    Museum of the Native American
  • Apache lands in New Mexico and Arizona.

    Google Earth, source: Ives Goddard, Smithsonian Institution
  • Chiricahua prisoners of war, including Geronimo, third from right in the front row, in 1886.

    National Archives and Records Administration, 111-SC-82320
  • Fort Sill Apache Tribal Chairman Jeff Haozous displays an artist's rendering of the casino he's fighting to get approved for the Apache Homelands Indian Reservation in southwestern New Mexico.

    Jay Hemphill
  • A boarded-up motel in Luna County, New Mexico, where unemployment is at 20 percent and nearly a third of the population lives below the poverty line.

    Jay Hemphill
  • Joe Saenz says he is among 250 or so area residents who are descendants of the original Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches.

    Jay Hemphill
  • Gloria Beltran is among the local tribal members who oppose the casino.

    Jay Hemphill
  • Carlos Benavides is among the local tribal members who oppose the casino. "We love this land," Benavides says. "(Haozous) only looks at it as a potential source of revenue."

    Jay Hemphill
 

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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.

Alexander Mensing
Alexander Mensing
Oct 21, 2013 06:06 PM
Thanks very much for this piece. What a sad history - doubly sad because it's so forgotten and unknown by so many of us, along with nearly all Native American history in the USA. It's good to know that there are possibilities for moving forward, that some still know the language, and that there are efforts (however controversial) at reconnecting with traditions.
Andrew Thorne
Andrew Thorne Subscriber
Oct 22, 2013 09:50 PM
Fayhee states, "They were put on trains at Fort Bowie, Ariz". I believe this may be in error. My [admittedly brief] research suggests Fort Bowie was not serviced by rail. I suspect Geronimo and his people were loaded on wagons and then transported by "wagon train" as captives to their next destination.
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson Subscriber
Oct 23, 2013 08:14 AM
Andrew: You're correct that Fort Bowie, itself, did not have rail service. But the tracks did -- and still do -- pass through the town of Bowie, about 14 miles away. This is where they most likely boarded the actual train. Thanks for keeping us on our toes!
Jonathan Thompson, Senior Editor
Mike Mendivil
Mike Mendivil
Aug 17, 2014 12:24 AM
It is interesting reading the current issues involving the Apache ancestors. I stubbled across a biography of Geronimo written in 1905 in which Geronimo was interviewed. His story might help clear up some of the origins of the 6 Apache Tribes prior to the U.S involvement in the territory. Here is the link: http://nativeamerican.lostsoulsgenealogy.com/[…]/geronimo.htm