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

Page 5

The 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act allowed legally recognized tribes with official reservations to establish casinos with little hassle. Reservations and tribes recognized after 1988 must either apply to the Bureau of Indian Affairs or directly petition the secretary of the Interior for a permit, and the state's governor must sign off on the application.

Fort Sill is pursuing both routes, but the applications' status seems to be something of a state secret. A BIA spokesperson acknowledged that an application has been submitted; Haozous allows only that final documents are being prepared as we speak. And Gary Meyers, who works at Apache Homelands' Deming office, responded to my questions with an opaque email that said the Department of Interior will try to determine whether the casino is in the best interest of the tribe and the community.

The Fort Sill Apaches have been working hard to prove that the proposed casino would indeed be in the best interest of the region. In January, Haozous and Agenda-Global obtained the support of the city council of Las Cruces, New Mexico's second-largest city, a half-hour from Akela Flats. Other nearby counties and towns are supportive, not simply to right historic wrongs, but also for the economic boost and jobs a casino could bring.

Luna County, home of the proposed casino, could use the boost. The rural county has an unemployment rate of almost 20 percent, and 30 percent of its 25,000 inhabitants live below the poverty line. The economy has traditionally relied on agriculture and food processing, but there are also a few small manufacturers. The Border Patrol is among the biggest employers.

The proposed casino would provide 250-300 jobs -- about the same as the Apache Casino in Lawton, says Haozous -- ranging from minimum-wage janitorial gigs to tipped positions, such as waitstaff, with a few six-figure positions for higher-ups. That would put it in the county's top five employers. And though most Native American casinos prefer to hire tribal members, there would be little if any preference shown to Fort Sill tribal members, something also true of the Lawton casino. That's because there simply aren't enough tribal members to fill all those jobs.

"We only have about 10 of our people working at our casino in Oklahoma," Haozous says. "We simply don't have a very large employment base. So we provide lots of jobs for (non-tribal) people in the community."

As well, the Lawton casino provides tax revenues to both the state and to the city. Oklahoma casinos are required to pay 4 percent of the adjusted gross revenues -- profits after payouts -- earned by slot machines, poker, blackjack, craps and the like to the state. The Apache Casino paid the state $1.5 million in 2012, though it's impossible to figure out how much the casino actually makes because operating costs are not public information.

Because the Akela Flats Casino would be located on a legally established reservation, its property and sales tax burdens in New Mexico would be essentially nonexistent, an issue that rankles Luna County Commissioner Javier Diaz.

"We met with Mr. Haozous about the fact that we would be providing essential services to the casino, like police and fire, but we would be getting no direct tax revenue to support those services in return," Diaz says, adding that there's no guarantee the casino jobs would be held by people living in Luna County as opposed to workers commuting from Las Cruces or elsewhere.

There is little doubt, though, that the proposed casino would help the economies of nearby towns. Casino patrons would likely eat and stay in Deming and Las Cruces, since the tribe currently has no plans to build a hotel on the reservation. And Haozous estimates that construction of the casino will cost between $10 million and $20 million, another infusion of cash into local communities.

But things have not gone smoothly for the Fort Sill Tribe at Akela Flats, thanks in part to persistent opposition from the New Mexico government. In early 2008, after the tribe attempted to open a high-stakes bingo parlor in a temporary structure on the property, then-Gov. Bill Richardson ordered state police to block access to it because the tribe lacked authorization for a gambling operation. In response, the tribe compared the action to "Gov. Wallace blocking the school house door ... in the 1960s."

Current New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez also opposes the proposed Akela Flats Casino, because, according to her press office, the tribe purportedly promised back in 2002 not to build a casino there. Haozous says that is simply not true. Martinez refused to answer repeated questions over whether her opposition has anything to do with the state's other tribes' fear of more gambling competition.

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