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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There are those who contend that the main reason Geronimo was forced to surrender in 1886 -- a decision he regretted for the rest of his life -- was that the U.S. government employed or coerced his own kinsmen to help track him down.

At least partly because of that bitter history,  the area that long served as the homeland for the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache has, for 127 years, been all but sterilized of its cultural heritage. Here in the Southwest, so rich in Native American history and culture, that seems especially tragic.

Just when it appears that the arc of history is bending ever so slightly in favor of the original residents of this lonely part of the West, intra-tribal conflict has again arisen to complicate everything. Now, that conflict has moved from Geronimo's old stomping grounds all the way to the governmental halls of Santa Fe and Washington, D.C. Final dispensation lies in the hands of elected officials, bureaucrats and lobbyists hired by tribes who sometimes appear more interested in protecting their fiscal turf than they are in preserving their heritage.

Several years ago, the Chiricahua Apache Nde' Nation spearheaded construction of a Geronimo Memorial at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. This year, the group helped build an interpretive display at Gila Hot Springs, and dedicated it in September.  The Chiricahua Apache Nde' Nation has also sponsored the Red Paint Powwow at Western New Mexico University in Silver City for nine years.

The Fort Sill Apache Tribe has not participated.

And the Chihene Nde' Nation of New Mexico, which opposes the proposed Akela Flats casino, has tried to establish a post-traumatic stress disorder treatment program for military veterans. At nearby Fort Bayard State Hospital, it would be based upon Native American healing practices. The group says it failed to generate any interest whatsoever from Fort Sill.

That lack of common ground frustrates and saddens a lot of people who should have a common goal, or so it would seem: the restoration of the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches to their rightful place.

"What Haozous doesn't seem to understand is that we can help each other," says Carlos Provencio, a Chihene Nde' Nation councilmember who lives near Silver City, N.M. "While I am opposed to casinos, we could help the Fort Sill Apache reintegrate with their ancestral homeland. We know the language. They do not. We know the land. They do not."

"I have never heard Jeff Haozous say anything about the land he supposedly wants to move his people back to," says Carlos Benavides, another Chihene Nde' councilmember. "Everything he talks about is economics. Those of us who live here have grown up with this land. We love this land. He only looks at it as a potential source of revenue."

"Now you know why we lost the Indian Wars," says Chiricahua Apache Nde' Nation member Gloria Beltran, half-smiling. But only half-smiling.

M. John Fayhee is the author of 10 books, including, most recently, The Colorado Mountain Companion and Smoke Signals, which was a finalist in the 2012 Colorado Book Awards. For 13 years, Fayhee was the editor of the Mountain Gazette. He lives in Silver City, N.M.

This story was funded in part by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.

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