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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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.

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