Indian Power

New Mexico tribes catapult into politics and join the state's water tug-of-war

  • Megan Bowers
  • "THE END OF THE ROAD": Tony Apachito and Johnny Jesuse play checkers for three hours every day at the Alamo Senior Center

    Megan Bowers
  • Nehemiah Peralta, shown with his 8-year-old niece, Chelsey Guerro, is the 22-year-old activity assistant at the Alamo Boys and Girls Club. He hopes to open a gas station/food store on his grandmother's land on the Alamo Reservation

    Megan Bowers
  • Alamo eighth-graders Michael Ivan Apachito and his cousin, Derrick Apachito, outside one of their school's portable classrooms

    Megan Bowers
  • Gambling operations, like the Taos Mountain Casino, have been a windfall for some tribes

    Megan Bowers
  • POWER SHIFT: Governor Bill Richardson is filling high-level staff positions in New Mexico with Native Americans

    Megan Bowers
  • Native Americans like Navajo Hilary Tompkins whom Gov. Richardson appointed deputy counsel

    Megan Bowers
  • Former Vice Chairman of the Democratic Party David Gomez, shown here with his son, Joaquin, calls Richardson's appointments "historic"

    Megan Bowers
  • PRECIOUS RESOURCE: Native Americans are beginning to fight for their "prior and paramount" water rights on New Mexico rivers. The Rio Grande, like this stretch between Española and Taos, is one battleground

    Megan Bowers
  • New Mexico pueblo tribes map

    Diane Sylvain

ALAMO CHAPTER, Navajo Nation, N.M.- Click on the "FAQs" link at the Web site for the Alamo Navajo Indian Reservation and you'll find only one question: "Where is Alamo?"

Many New Mexicans are unsure where Alamo is, says Alamo Chapter Community Services Coordinator Michael Secatero. "They say, 'Texas,' " he laughs. "Or 'lamogordo,' " the city in southern New Mexico.

"Even some of our own people in the Navajo Nation don't know where we are here," adds George Apachito, Alamo's stocky, serious and low-key chapter president.

T'iistsoh sikaadi, the Navajo name for Alamo, is home to about 2,000 tribal members. It is detached and isolated from the better-known, main Navajo Nation, which sprawls across the Four Corners area. There's only one good road in and out of Alamo: Narrow, roller-coaster State Highway 169, which winds 30 miles through the red-dirt, pi–on-dotted outback of east-central New Mexico. From Alamo, it's 220 miles to Window Rock, Ariz., the Navajo Nation's capital.

"We don't have a store, there's no post office, no gas station," says Apachito. The community didn't have electricity until the 1960s, and it wasn't until 1980, after a frustrating effort to secure federal money, that the tribe was able to establish schools on the reservation. Secatero says he and other tribal members had to get an Albuquerque bank to loan them $5,000 for a trip to Washington, D.C., so they could personally plead their case.

Over the last decade, the tribe has added a clinic, an early-childhood development center, even a small AM radio station. But there's still a lot lacking. Many Alamo families live in a decaying federal housing project, incongruously plopped down near the end of the highway. Others live in scattered mobile homes and makeshift structures. A single police officer patrols the 64,000-acre reservation, and the tribe's only fire engine is restricted to a three-mile radius. The poverty rate in Socorro County - where Alamo is located - is among the highest in the state.

"We've got 65 percent unemployment here," Apachito says. After finishing high school, many younger tribal members "just hang around Alamo," he says. "That's the end of the road."

But Apachito has hope that a new road is opening up for Alamo and the 24 other Indian reservations and pueblos in New Mexico. He's planning to make a trip to the state capital, Santa Fe, where he thinks he'll get a warm welcome. Why is he so hopeful? The power equation that put Native Americans at the bottom in New Mexico for almost 500 years has recently shifted dramatically. Casino gaming, launched on a major scale in the mid-1990s and legal only on the reservations, has pumped millions of dollars into the Indian economy, particularly for pueblos on the Middle Rio Grande, near the state's urban centers. Last year, the tribes put their money and votes behind a powerful political ally - Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Richardson, whose clear pro-Indian tilt they hailed as "historic." Now governor, Richardson has promised a new economic development initiative that could lead to significant changes in underdeveloped areas like Alamo.

The power shift comes at a critical time as New Mexico, a desert state with dramatic Sunbelt growth, withers under continuing drought. Along the Rio Grande, sprawling Albuquerque is wrestling with farmers over dwindling water supplies (HCN, 10/14/02: Albuquerque is dragged into Rio Grande fight). Environmentalists say the river is under attack, and they've filed lawsuits to force water managers to protect the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. With little relief likely to come from the skies, a battle looms over how to divide the shrinking river.

And now, for the first time, the tribes are about to weigh in. Using casino profits, some pueblos have hired lawyers and experts to assert their senior aboriginal water rights. The New Mexico water game, already a high drama, is about to get even more interesting.

Tribes get a "gaming transfusion"

Around Albuquerque, billboards and television ads pitch the theme: "Close to home, far from ordinary." No need to take that long drive to Vegas. Uptown, upscale gaming, big-time slot action and professional poker are only a few minutes away, at Sandia Casino.

Tiny Sandia Pueblo, with only about 500 members, ventured into gaming in the early 1980s, with a bingo hall. Two years ago, the pueblo opened an $80 million gambling temple, a Las Vegas-style casino with a tribal touch.

Outside, fountains spray water, patrons stroll past imposing sandstone brick columns, and valet parking attendants shuffle sports cars and SUVs.

Inside, pictures of former pueblo governors greet gamblers headed to the 1,600 slot machines. Next to the Thlur P'a ("rainwater") Lounge stands a larger-than-life sculpture of an Indian woman, titled Morning Prayer. Inside the pricey Bien Shur ("blue mountain") Restaurant, enlarged photographs of tribal members from the early 1900s gaze down on diners slicing steaks.

For Sandia, gambling is a gold mine. The pueblo's location on the edge of Albuquerque, less than an hour's drive from Santa Fe, has made it the top gambling-money generator in New Mexico. On a typical weekend day, about 10,000 people slip nickels and dollar bills into the slots.

The gaming profits provide top-of-the-line services for tribal members. Eighty percent of the tribe's elementary and secondary students are in private schools in Albuquerque, paid for by the pueblo. High school graduates get all expenses paid to any university or college they choose. The pueblo has refurbished houses and restored a historic church.

"Unquestionably, (Indian casinos have) been a good thing," says former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, R, who signed the original compacts that allowed the tribes to open casinos. "Arguably, these are the most poverty-stricken areas of the state, and they've been that way for a long time. This Indian gaming transfusion, if it continues for 100 years, there's a certain justice in that."

State studies indicate that gamblers dump about $1 million a day into the slots. Under the compacts negotiated through the 1988 federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the tribes pay 8 percent of the net win from the slots to the state (smaller casinos pay slightly less). Last year, that amounted to just over $31 million. The compacts require at least an 80 percent payback to bettors. What's left goes to pay for operations - and everything beyond that is profit, the exact amount of which the tribes never talk about.

At Acoma Pueblo, near Grants in northwestern New Mexico, a casino pulls in cross-country truckers from Interstate 40. The pueblo is located in what was once the state's prime uranium-mining area. "There's not too much economic activity out here since the uranium days," says pueblo Gov. Fred Vallo. Gambling, he says, "was a very good decision for us. It's been great. The tribe is now the largest employer in the county."

Equally dramatic has been the shift at Santa Ana Pueblo, which lies between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The tribe's luxury Tamaya Resort now includes a Hyatt Regency Hotel, a 27-hole golf course, and the Santa Ana Star Casino (HCN, 11/19/01: Bringing back the bosque). "The pueblo has come a long ways," says Santa Ana Gov. Myron Armijo. "We're just now catching up with the people on the outside."

Officials in Albuquerque and other cities complain that pueblo casinos have drained their sales tax revenue, as locals spend more on gambling and less at city businesses. As much as $70 million a year in state and local taxes is lost because of Indian gaming, one state report concluded. But gaming tribes point out that the state gets a cut of the profits, and that casinos provide nearly 6,000 jobs statewide.

"At the best, it's a trade-off, a wash," says former Gov. Johnson, who says the money lost by cities and the state is gained by reservations. For the gaming tribes, slots pave the road to economic salvation - and to new respect and political clout. "This is not idle money," Johnson says. "This is money being spent by Indians, and, yeah, money is power."

Indians get involved

Gambling has literally propelled New Mexico tribes into politics.

Traditionally, the pueblos would have little to do with the state. Indians had "become a little isolationist," says Richardson's new Labor secretary, Conroy Chino, an Acoma Pueblo member and a former investigative reporter with an Albuquerque television station. That allowed the tribes to "exist in ways that were traditionally familiar, to continue our rituals and ceremonies in private."

Indian tribes are sovereign nations, with the power to tax and enforce laws within their borders. They deal with states on an equal footing, on what is called a "government-to-government" basis. The treaties the tribes signed with the U.S. government, along with later court decisions, outline tribal water rights and define tribal courts and police jurisdiction. The New Mexico Constitution specifically renounced any state authority over Indian lands. But the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act forced the tribes and the states to the table to negotiate gambling compacts. "We're not living in the days past anymore, when tribal governments and state and local governments were more or less separate," says Santa Fe attorney David Gomez, a Taos Pueblo member and former vice chairman of the state Democratic Party. Rather, he says, "everything is interconnected, so that the tribes have no choice but to participate in the system."

Clear evidence of this surfaced when Bill Richardson ran for governor last fall, vowing to open the doors of state government to Indians. Richardson had good contacts and relationships with the tribes in northern New Mexico, an area he represented in Congress for 15 years.

Buoyed by Richardson's promises, Democrats launched get-out-the-vote efforts at several pueblos and on the Navajo Nation. A state study of key tribal precincts suggests that election participation jumped: At Sandia, for example, 76 percent of tribal members voted, the highest turnout among tribes and higher than the overall state average of 53 percent. About 80 percent of the total tribal and pueblo vote went to Richardson.

Several pueblos also made sizable contributions to Richardson's campaign. Sandia - the gaming-money leader - pitched in more than $56,000, and Isleta Pueblo donated $10,000. In all, Richardson netted more than $650,000 from in- and out-of-state gambling interests, according to the Albuquerque Tribune. Richardson, 55, skillfully blended charm, fluent Spanish and hard-nosed politics as he cruised to an easy election victory over his Republican opponent. Heavyset, deep-voiced and determined, Richardson rushed into the governorship, dumped his predecessor's GOP appointees and quickly consolidated power with his own people.

Guy Clark of Albuquerque, an anti-gambling activist, said Richardson would give "preferential treatment" to gaming interests because of their donations. Richardson denies that: "I can only say my door is open to all the tribes in New Mexico - and only a few have the resources to participate significantly in political finance."

He named Sandia Gov. Stuwart Paisano to a key spot on his transition team. Paisano, 31, is the youngest tribal governor in New Mexico. A former sheriff's deputy, Paisano is affable, media-savvy and describes himself as "aggressive" in pursuing tough tribal issues. His task in the transition was to locate a pool of Native American applicants for Richardson's political appointments. The new governor acted swiftly, naming 12 tribal members to high-level jobs and another 19 to various boards and commissions.

Paisano says Native American people "have always been shut out." Now, "this gives us an opportunity to have a seat at the table ... instead of being looked at as second- or third-class citizens."

Gov. Richardson also met early on with the 19 pueblo governors. Richardson and the governors signed a document that recognizes tribal sovereignty and outlines procedures to iron out differences. He told the tribal leaders he would keep intact a controversial provision that allows tribes to charge a gasoline tax of 17 cents per gallon, with the money to be used for road projects.

Later, Richardson asked Attorney General Patricia Madrid to file a "friend of court" brief in an Inyo County, Calif., search warrant case involving a tribal casino. County investigators there sought casino employment records to prove that several workers were illegally receiving welfare assistance. The Paiute-Shoshone tribe resisted, citing sovereign immunity. With its brief, New Mexico was the first state to side with the tribe. "It's something we're really proud of," says Hilary Tompkins, a Navajo who was named as Richardson's deputy counsel.

During the 2003 legislative session, the tribes also chalked up some gains. Legislators passed the Indian Education Act, which could dramatically improve tribal schools by developing curriculum in Indian languages, among other things. The state Indian Affairs Office was elevated to cabinet status, and tribes picked up a larger share of capital improvement "pork" funds. "I think this is historic, the level of involvement," says attorney Gomez.

Testing the water

The biggest challenge Richardson may face is tribal water rights. The issue is complicated and fraught with potential conflict, especially in the bustling Middle Rio Grande Valley.

A half-century ago, Albuquerque was a dusty, unpretentious town of about 30,000, a mere dot on the map in the desert Southwest. But in recent decades, as the city peddled its sunny climate and attracted computer mega-giants like Intel, its need for a reliable water supply surged. What was once thought to be a giant underground aquifer turned out to be more of a mirage, prompting the city in recent years to turn to the Rio Grande. As the area's population approaches one million, it's clear that something has to give, and downstream, flood-irrigating alfalfa farmers - often accused of wasting water - are worried that it will be them. Environmentalists, meanwhile, have waded into the mess, filing lawsuits on behalf of the silvery minnow, whose demise, they say, is directly linked to the use - and abuse - of the Rio Grande.

The tribes enjoy senior, "prior and paramount" water rights, because of their historic presence on the land. The state's Native Americans, who account for about 10 percent of the population, trace their roots back thousands of years - perhaps to the mysterious Anasazi, or Ancient Puebloans, who abandoned their cliff dwellings on the Colorado Plateau around 1300 A.D. Unlike other, less-senior water rights, which are based on a "use-it-or-lose-it" system, tribal rights never go away. Until recently, Indian water rights have been a sleeping issue, mostly because the tribes have not demanded access to their water other than for irrigation and ceremonial purposes. Now, with thirsty golf courses, soccer fields, hotel guests and slot-machine users, the tribes' demands for water have increased.

Dealing with the tribes on the issue of water is difficult for the Anglo culture, says Albuquerque water attorney Les Ramirez, a Kiowa Indian who has represented Santa Ana Pueblo. The tribes see water as tied to the land, he says, part of the earth that can never be owned. "Some tribes see it as a property right, some have a hybrid approach, and some hold their views about water particularly close to the vest," Ramirez says.

However they view the issue, as tribes watch the state's scarce water being siphoned off and scuffled over, more and more are jumping into the fight, Anglo-style. They're hiring water attorneys and amassing their legal claims, in case it comes down to a battle in the courts.

In other parts of New Mexico, there has been some effort to define tribal water rights. Claims by the Jicarilla Apaches in northern New Mexico have been settled. The Taos Pueblo in the north and the Mescalaro Apaches in southern New Mexico are being adjudicated, a laborious process in which the courts sort out competing claims.

But much work remains, particularly in the key Middle Rio Grande Valley, where six pueblos - Santa Ana, Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, Sandia and Isleta - have water rights that have never been carved out. "They're the ones that hold the key to the Middle Rio Grande," says Ernest Coriz, who works for the state engineer, the official who oversees water in New Mexico.

Adjudication there would be an immense and costly undertaking. One unsettled Indian water-rights case - the Aamodt case, which involves the San Ildefonso, Nambe, Tesuque and Pojoaque pueblos in the Santa Fe area - has been lingering for decades.

Sandia Gov. Paisano says his pueblo is pushing to define its share of the Rio Grande. The Bureau of Reclamation is required by law to store pueblo water each year for irrigation use. But if the tribes don't use all their stored water, the federal government can release it, and the tribes must wait until the following year for a new share. Paisano says the pueblo wants to carry over any unused water and retain the option to lease it later.

Richardson says he supports the Sandia request, "but we are obliged to move carefully." He points out that allowing pueblos to store water could affect New Mexico's ability to deliver water to Texas, as required by the 1938 Rio Grande Compact.

Ken Maxey, BuRec's Albuquerque area manager, says pueblo water rights are also problematic because the federal water agency is under court mandate to keep the river flowing for the silvery minnow. This summer, for the first time since 1950, the Bureau of Reclamation might have to release tribal water for the fish, he says, as a last resort. That could put the federal government on a collision course with the pueblos.

"Our response is that our water rights are guaranteed to us by treaty and statute and should not be used for the minnow," says Paisano. The other Middle Rio Grande pueblos all agree, he says, though they want to resolve the issue peaceably. "We could potentially help out the state of New Mexico, but it's going to mean the federal agencies have to change their mind-set and the way they do business with the pueblos to make this work," he says.

Can diplomacy work?

In the middle of this tangled tug-of-war is Bill Richardson, and expectations are high. Richardson - who has been nominated four times for the Nobel Peace Prize, and who has an international reputation as a diplomat for his work with the likes of Saddam Hussein and the North Koreans - says he's committed to resolving New Mexico tribal issues. He plans to "make it a priority to determine the nature and extent of Indian water rights in New Mexico." He's not specific about the details, but does say, "We will do this by collaboration and negotiation rather than litigation."

The tribes appear to place considerable faith in Richardson. Tribal water attorney Ramirez believes in this "third way" to settle conflicts; Richardson, he says, has "incredible skill and vision and a new way of doing things." There is some precedent for finding peaceful resolution to such problems. Major progress has been made in settling Navajo Nation water rights, thanks largely to a decision to negotiate rather than adjudicate. "We estimated it would have cost $400 million over 30 years to adjudicate Navajo water rights," says Coriz, in the state engineer's office. Now, after five years of talks, "we're in a position to dot the i's, cross the t's and put the numbers in."

Settling the Navajo rights would be a major step, because they involve claims on the San Juan River, which accounts for two-thirds of all the water in New Mexico, he says. This is in stark contrast to the way things are playing out on the Colorado River, where the Navajo Nation recently sued over its water rights, potentially stalling out interstate negotiations there (see story previous page).

"My job is to build better relations between the Indian people and state government," says Coriz, a 30-year state government employee and a native of the Santo Domingo Pueblo. "I'm an engineer and an irrigator," Coriz adds. "I see the perspective from both sides."

But the Richardson administration faces other daunting tasks, particularly with economic development on reservations without casinos. Tribes that have embraced gaming have the resources to deal with inferior housing and lack of basic utilities. But in rural areas, especially on the Navajo Nation, which has refused to establish casinos, tribal members are seeing little of the prosperity that has arrived of late for pueblos on the Middle Rio Grande.

About 50 percent of Navajo families live in poverty; around 40 percent don't have adequate plumbing facilities, and more than half lack telephone service. Something as simple as starting a business on the reservation requires jumping through years of bureaucratic hoops. At the same time, the frequent changes of power in tribal governments further complicate reservation life.

"The hardest entity to work with is our own tribe, our own government," says Alamo Chapter President George Apachito. Money allocated to the Navajo Nation almost ten years ago for one project at Alamo still hasn't filtered down, Apachito says.

That, however, may be changing. In the last election, the Navajos - 180,000 live in New Mexico alone, the largest tribal population in the state - swept into power a reformist leadership. New President Joe Shirley pledges to cut red tape and to give Nation chapters like Alamo greater autonomy and authority. It's a long road ahead, but there's hope that a new era has arrived for New Mexico's Indian tribes. The tribes are looking for results. "I've been requesting to meet with the governor," Alamo's Apachito says. "We got a long wish list."

Paul Krza writes from Socorro, New Mexico.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- The pueblos’ roller-coaster rise to power

- The Colorado River’s sleeping giant stirs

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

You can contact ...

New Mexico Office of Indian Affairs, 505/827-6440

Pueblo of Sandia, 505/867-3317;

New Mexico Gaming Control Board, 505/841-9700;

Alamo Chapter, Navajo Nation, 505/854-2686;

New Mexico office of the State Engineer, 505/827-6175.

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