Jicarilla Indians expand their reservation

  • The Jicarilla Apache Tribe's new land includes El Poso ranch

    Mark Holm

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 without.

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.

Bigger, to the tune of at least 94,000 acres.

"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 realities.

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.

The 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 year.

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 Utah.

"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 income.

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 reservation."

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 County.

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 land.

"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.

Even 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.

Such 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 tribes.

"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 reservations.

"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 property.

"Now that," he says, "that is a reservation."

The writer works for the Albuquerque Journal.

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