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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This is more than just a modern manifestation of historic disputes based on, say, tribal access to hunting grounds or water sources. This is Big Business. Nationwide, Native American casinos pull in nearly $28 billion per year, and New Mexico's Indian casinos last year had a collective "net win" -- the amount wagered on gambling minus payouts and fees -- of $182 million. While that number is steadily growing, so is the number of casinos sharing it in the state; the Navajo Nation alone has opened four big casinos in the last five years, three of them in New Mexico. It's only natural that tribes with existing casinos would want to keep competition at bay, and pull the necessary political strings to do so. Tribes are among the nation's top lobbyists on casino and gaming issues, and casino-owning tribes, especially, have been known to be generous in their political contributions.

Currently, the nearest Indian casino to Akela Flats is the Mescalero Apaches' Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort and Casino near Ruidoso, which draws heavily from the Las Cruces and El Paso market. In August 2011, then-Mescalero Apache Tribal President Mark Chino voiced his opposition to a proposed Akela Flats casino in testimony before the New Mexico Legislature's Interim Indian Affairs Committee. Mescalero officials also opposed an attempt by the Jemez Pueblo, northwest of Albuquerque, to build an off-reservation casino in Anthony, N.M., near El Paso.

Mescalero's opposition puts the descendants of the 187 Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache who moved to that reservation from Fort Sill in 1913 in an awkward position: They are enrolled members of a tribe that opposes a move that some of their closest relatives believe essential to the return of their people to their ancestral homeland. But they wouldn't be included in that repatriation effort anyway, because the Fort Sill Tribe's enrollment rules stipulate that members not only must be directly descended from the Apache prisoners of war, but also have never been members of another legally recognized tribe.

Paul Ortega, who once served as tribal chairman for the Mescalero Apaches, blames greed for his tribe's opposition to the proposal. "The other tribes don't want to risk having another tribe applying for a casino permit in areas that might compete with their own casinos," he says. And the Mescalero have worked hard to gain influence, spending nearly $1.6 million on lobbyists since 2002, mostly regarding gaming issues, along with donating a bundle of cash to state and national politicians.

Meanwhile, the Fort Sill Apaches have done their best to curry favor with Gov. Martinez, donating $10,000 to her last campaign, apparently to no avail. Haozous told me that if Martinez continues to oppose the construction of his tribe's proposed casino, then the Fort Sill Apache Tribe "will just wait until there's a new governor. We've been waiting a long time."

Martinez plans to run for re-election in 2014.

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