As the returns, it would be historic.
Members of the Fort Sill Apache tribe told lawmakers in New Mexico on Thursday that they were working on a land swap that would add 2,100 acres to their tiny reserve 18 miles east of Deming.
“If we succeed, it is the most important development for the tribe in the 125 years since Geronimo’s surrender and the members have been forced out of their homeland and imprisoned,” said Joel Davis, lawyer for the Apaches of Fort Sill.
As it stands, the tribe’s 30-acre reserve in New Mexico is a point on its home territory’s imprint.
Davis said limited space makes it impossible to develop housing and many businesses. In turn, the Apaches cannot return to their ancestral home.
Santa Fe artist Bob Haozous, a registered member of the Fort Sill Apache tribe, puts it another way.
“We cannot cultivate rocks,” he said. “The tribe is still a victim of colonization which took away our land, our language, our people. “
Davis told state lawmakers who are members of the Indian Affairs Committee that he cannot discuss the details of the land swap because the deal is being negotiated.
But in a subsequent interview, he said the plot the tribe wishes to acquire is state trusteeship land contiguous to the reserve. The land transaction is of personal importance to Davis. His wife, 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son are registered members of the tribe. They live in Rio Rancho and Davis’ law firm is based in Los Lunas. But 19th-century indignities in southern New Mexico are as fresh to Davis as the headlines this morning.
The westbound settlers wanted the homeland of Geronimo’s tribe, the Chiricahua Apaches. Geronimo spent three punitive decades defending his territory, which also included parts of modern Mexico and Arizona.
In September 1886, he could no longer detain intruders. He surrendered to the US military, hoping to get something back.
The Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches were forced to leave their homeland, banished to other parts of the country as prisoners. Their exile was to be relatively brief.
Davis says Geronimo’s agreement with the US government provided for the return of the tribes to the Southwest in 1888. This promise was broken by President Grover Cleveland’s administration.
For the US government, the Apaches were prisoners of war. They were shipped to camps in Florida and Alabama. Some eventually attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.
Members of the tribe still at the mercy of the federal government were assembled in 1894 on the Comanche and Kiowa Reservation near Fort Sill in Oklahoma Territory. This change in geography, unrelated to the land, gave its name to the Apache tribe of Fort Sill.
Haozous knows the ugly story. His grandparents, Sam and Blossom Haozous, were held in POW camps. They had a son in 1914, the year in prison ended for the Apaches of Fort Sill.
The world will know him as Allan Houser, an exceptionally talented painter and sculptor. Raised outside of captivity, he became famous. Houser moved to the artist-run center in Santa Fe, allowing his immediate family to replant roots in New Mexico.
Many other Fort Sill Apaches felt unwelcome in New Mexico, even in the 21st century.
Then-Gov. Susana Martinez in 2013 called the Fort Sill Apaches an Oklahoma tribe whose primary interest in New Mexico was to open a casino. She pointed out that the tribe has only 147 members in New Mexico.
Martinez sidestepped the hard truths of history. The American government had robbed the Apaches of their land and their freedom. Their number was certainly low considering all the abuses.
The Apaches of Fort Sill hosted a confrontation with the Republican governor. They took Martinez’s administration to the state Supreme Court.
Tribal chiefs had long admitted that a casino was part of their plans. But they refuted Martinez on a larger point, saying they wanted to rebuild their ancestral homeland.
Supreme Court justices deliberated just 15 minutes before ordering Martinez to recognize the Apaches of Fort Sill as a tribe from New Mexico. It was seven years ago, a hard-fought victory but only a start.
Davis said the tribe is moving forward with a business venture that will employ around 50 people in Luna County, which is lacking in jobs. It will lead the way next quarter on a full-service truck stop on Interstate 10.
As for the proposed casino, it has gone nowhere. Federal lawsuits have so far dashed the tribe’s hopes.
Land acquisition is an even more important part of the Apache rebirth hopes of Fort Sill.
Without additional property, Davis said, it’s harder to rebuild a community and a culture. In some ways, the Battle of Geronimo never ended.
Ringside Seat is an opinion piece on people, politics and current affairs. Contact Milan Simonich at msim[email protected] or 505-986-3080.