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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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.

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