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SANTA FE — New Mexico is home to the nation’s newest Indian reservation. Ever since Gary Johnson first became governor in 1995, the Fort Sill Apaches have been trying to establish a presence in New Mexico.
In the first month of Gov. Johnson’s administration, he signed gaming agreements with those tribes and pueblos seeking them. That same year, he also welcomed Fort Sill’s repatriation back to New Mexico.
In 1968, the U.S. Court of Claims determined that the land in Southern New Mexico west of the Rio Grande was the tribe’s legally defined homeland. In 2002, the last year of Gov. Johnson’s administration, the tribe purchased land at Akela, N.M., on Interstate 10, between Las Cruces and Deming which is within its legally defined homeland.
According to the tribe’s website, the federal government approved the purchase as Indian trust land. Tribes can purchase land anywhere they want. It is done often and sometimes in areas that would be very attractive for a casino. But getting it approved for that purpose is another matter.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs is careful to obtain agreement from the governor of a state where the bureau is considering taking an action. Presumably the Bureau obtained Gov. Johnson’s approval to declare the purchase as Indian trust land.
In 2003, Bill Richardson became governor and relations with Indian tribes and pueblos, including Fort Sill became considerably less cozy. Richardson was more interested in helping the failing racing industry by allowing horse tracks to add slot machine gambling.
The Fort Sill tribe has released a statement saying that the tribe had an unnecessarily confrontational and litigious relationship with the Richardson administration. In 2008, the tribe added some minimal gambling to its restaurant and smoke shop at Akela. It was met with a State Police blockade.
In 2011, the first year of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration, the tribe received a ruling from the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the tribe is eligible to establish a gambling operation on the 30 acres it purchased at Akela.
Apparently Gov. Martinez did not give her approval to that ruling because in mid-April she announced in Deming that she does not support the casino because the tribe had agreed not to open gaming at the site. Perhaps the governor’s approval is not necessary to declare the trust land eligible for gaming but it is necessary before the tribe can begin gaming operations.
Whether the tribe agreed to not open gaming operations at the site is unclear. The trust-land decision was made by the BIA during Gov. Johnson’s administration. It doesn’t seem likely that Johnson would have required such a promise from the tribe.
Was the tribe’s promise made during the Richardson administration? It seems consistent that Richardson would have sought such a promise but what would Richardson have given in return for such a major concession? It doesn’t seem as though the tribe gained anything during Richardson’s terms.
And how firm is the requirement that governors approve decisions made under the National Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, especially if decisions vary from one governor to the next?
The Fort Sill Tribe says it can clarify the matter if it can sit down and talk with Gov. Martinez. Maybe so, but this governor hasn’t been good about sitting down and talking about any big issues. Film industry executives have been unsuccessful in getting a meeting since Martinez took office.
The Fort Sill Tribe says this is all about returning to the land of their ancestors. They say they need the gambling activity to finance that major move. And the economic development would benefit the nearby city of Deming which has a 15 percent unemployment rate.
It sounds good but how many of the tribe would return to their homeland? They already have a major gaming operation in Lawton, Oklahoma. The tribe isn’t going to walk away. And will they bring Geronimo with them? The tribe has been fighting that request.
Jay Miller is a syndicated columnist based in Santa Fe.