State Supreme Court finds lost tribe

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By Bob Hagan

 The Fort Sill Apaches are now, by order of the state Supreme Court, a New Mexico Indian tribe. But what impact that decision might have on the tribe’s tiny reservation near Deming and on economic development in southwestern New Mexico remains an open question.
Luna County, where the tribe’s smokeshop and restaurant just off I-10 at Akela employs 11 people, could certainly use a boost. Its jobless rate was a whopping 18.8 percent in February, nearly three times the state’s 6.7 percent.
The court’s decision requires Gov. Susana Martinez to invite the Fort Sill Apaches to the annual meeting where tribes and state discuss how to divvy up the pool of severance tax bonds set aside annually for tribal infrastructure.
Tribal Chairman Jeff Haozous said he didn’t know what his people might hope to get out of this year’s summit, scheduled for July 17-18. “It’s like going to a new restaurant,” Haozous said. “When you first sit down at the table, you want to look at the menu and see what’s available.”
The bill of fare at the Tribal Infrastructure Café is pretty sparse, however, and the newcomers are likely to be disappointed at the size of their helping. In fiscal 2013, just $16.7 million was available. And the 22 New Mexico tribes and pueblos already gathered around the table are all more populous and better connected politically than the newcomer.
The law makes it clear the money is intended to improve the “poor social, health and economic conditions in (tribal) communities.” As the governor’s lawyer argued in the hearing, there really is no Fort Sill Apache community in New Mexico, nor has there been since 1886, when the army rounded up their ancestors, the Warm Springs Apaches.
Nearly half the tribe’s 712 members reside in Oklahoma, just 147 live in New Mexico, and none live at Akela. There are no immediate plans for a return to the ancestral homeland.
“Most people are rooted in their lives,” Haozous said. “They can’t just pick up and move. My vision is that over generations, if the kids have the opportunity, then we will repopulate (the reservation). But we can’t justify moving 30 or 40 families to an area where there are no jobs for them.”
Which conjures up the magic word: “casino.”
That word was never mentioned in the Supreme Court hearing, but neither side pretends the tribe’s long and expensive battle for state recognition was about the right to compete for the relatively paltry amounts available for infrastructure development.
Certainly the Oklahoma Apaches have a genuine, heartfelt desire to reclaim their patrimony; they have also acquired land near their namesake Warm Springs in the Black Range, and they are discussing additional purchases.
But it takes money to realize dreams, and a casino would be the first opportunity west of Louisiana to drop a nickel into a slot machine. Ultimately, it’s not hard to envision a resort complex that would serve tourists as a gateway to Silver City and the Gila Wilderness.
The argument over state recognition has no direct bearing on the tribe’s quest for a casino. That’s a federal question, and their new status as a New Mexico tribe provides just one more small piece of ammunition in that long-running battle.
The real question is why our two most recent governors, a Democrat and a Republican, have been so determined to block that ambition. Bill Richardson sent state cops to thwart the Apaches’ plan to open a bingo hall; Martinez fought the cost-free request for tribal recognition all the way to the state’s highest court.
Indian casinos have been an economic boon to other New Mexico tribes. Maybe this election year would be a good moment for our governor to explain her opposition to the folks of southwestern New Mexico.