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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Yet another complication stands in the way of Haozous and his tribe's efforts: Their own kin. Scattered far beyond their ancestral homelands, there may be as many as 75,000 direct descendants of Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches who never surrendered, were never captured and never moved onto reservations. And some of those unaffiliated descendants have come together to instigate their own repatriation efforts, in essence, rivaling the attempts of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe.

The most prominent of these groups are the Chihene Nde' Nation of New Mexico, which consists primarily of descendants of Warm Springs Apaches who once resided on scattered Spanish land grants throughout southwest New Mexico, and the Chiricahua Apache Nde' Nation, made up of people who claim Chiricahua descent. The two groups each have about 1,200 members.

The Chihene Nde' Nation is a nonprofit corporation with an elected tribal council. According to Chairman Manuel Sanchez, who lives in Los Angeles, would-be tribal members must prove their ancestors were indigenous to the general area of the land grants.

The Chihene Nde' Nation has worked to get official tribal recognition from the BIA for more than 30 years, an effort that the Fort Sill Apache Tribe -- unwilling to give up its status as the only legal heir to the Apaches who once dwelled in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona -- has emphatically opposed.

Haozous contends that there were no remnant populations of Chiricahua or Warm Springs Apache left in southwest New Mexico or southeast Arizona after Geronimo's surrender in 1886. "I don't think there were any of our people left there," he says firmly. "They were threatened with death if they stayed after Geronimo's surrender. Family is extremely important to our people, yet you never hear anyone talking about family members being left behind after 1886, or of anyone going back to visit family members. If there were Chiricahua or Warm Springs Apache left behind in our ancestral homeland, our people would know it."

"Well, I am proof that he's wrong," says Joe Saenz, a Chiricahua who owns and operates WolfHorse Outfitters in Arenas Valley, N.M., six miles east of Silver City.

Saenz serves as secretary of State for the Chiricahua Apache Nde' Nation, a loosely knit group of people who claim to be of Chiricahua extraction. "Though we do have one member who reviews applications, we generally take people at their word, and, if appropriate, we point them to San Carlos, Mescalero or Fort Sill to help them establish their family history," says Saenz, who feels his group's lack of rigid structure is in keeping with traditional Apache governmental style.

Saenz estimates that there are about 250 people of verifiable Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache extraction living in the Silver City area. Chickie Beltran, a member of the Chiricahua Apache Nde' Nation who lives in Pinos Altos, N.M., seven miles north of Silver City, echoes the statement: "(Haozous) is obviously not familiar with the free Apaches that were never taken prisoner or put on a reservation."

"Or he refuses to accept them for political reasons," Chickie's sister, Gloria, adds. "Our grandfather's mom was in Geronimo's band and she married into the Torres family. That's how a lot of Apache evaded capture -- they pretended to be Mexican."

Indeed, according to Dan L. Thrapp's book, Conquest of Apacheria, a group of Chiricahua, called the Bronco Apaches, refused to surrender and took refuge in Mexico's Sierra Madre. They continued to raid across the border into Arizona until 1924, 40 years after the U.S. government declared "mission accomplished" in the Apache Wars.

Even Darrow, the Fort Sill Apache's tribal historian, admits that not all Chiricahua were taken prisoner or moved onto reservation lands.

"There were a small number, probably fewer than 20, of Chiricahua Apaches who were not imprisoned or on reservations when the majority were imprisoned," Darrow wrote in an email.

In any event, members of both Nde' Nations (Nde', meaning "The People," is the Apaches' word for themselves) tend to be skeptical of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe's motives.

"I feel that if the members of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe truly wanted to move back here, they would already be here," says Richard Montoya, a southwest New Mexico resident and Chihene Nde' Nation councilmember. "What's stopping them? I don't believe they want to move down here. I think they just want the money from the casino."

Saenz, too, believes his Oklahoma cousins simply want to use the Apache Homelands as a conduit for extracting money from New Mexico and using it for the tribe in Oklahoma. But, he adds, "If they are sincere about moving back, I wish them luck."

Whatever the motivation, Haozous and the Fort Sill Apache seem to be moving, symbolically at least, toward home again –– westward toward their ancestral territory. The tribe is in the process of changing its name to the Chiricahua/Warm Springs Apache Tribe. Haozous says his tribe is laying the groundwork for compiling an Apache dictionary, so that members can start to re-learn their language.

The tribe also owns several parcels of land within its ancestral territory -- 20 acres received as a trade from a member in the northern corner of what is now the Gila National Forest, near Winston, N.M., and four acres at the base of Cochise's Stronghold, a rugged area in southeast Arizona, from where the great chief and about 1,000 of his followers staged raids for more than 15 years. Haozous said the tribe is in the process of acquiring more land in Arizona, as well. But those parcels are all too remote to serve as springboards for the repatriation that he has in mind.

Haozous refuses to speculate whether the tribe would try to build a casino in Arizona. He plays his cards close to the vest when addressing their plans for that land.

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