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N.M. Supreme Court to hear Fort Sill Apaches’ case next month

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SANTA FE — The state Supreme Court hears arguments next month in the Fort Sill Apaches’ bid to be recognized as a New Mexico tribe, an effort the tribe says is about fairness but the state claims is more about gambling.

The Oklahoma-based tribe, which has a 30-acre reservation in southern New Mexico, says the recognition is part of a “long-held dream” to return to the homeland from which its Chiricahua Apache ancestors were taken as prisoners of war.

The administration of Gov. Susana Martinez contends the Fort Sill Apaches are not a New Mexico tribe, despite their acreage in Luna County, and suggests the lawsuit is part of a continued push for a casino at the site.

Specifically, the Fort Sill Apache Tribe will ask the state’s highest court on April 14 to order Martinez to include the tribe in the annual state-tribal summit, put it on the state Indian Affairs Department’s list of tribes, and consult with it as required in New Mexico’s State-Tribal Collaboration Act.

“Follow the law, that’s all,” tribal Chairman Jeff Haozous told the Journal this week.

The tribe says it has been left out of the summits since they began in 2009 and was specifically told last year that it was not invited. The state’s exclusion of the tribe has thwarted its access to economic development and other programs, the tribe contends.

The 30-acre tract along Interstate 10 at Akela Flats has only a restaurant and a smoke shop. Haozous says that’s because the tribe hasn’t had the opportunity to get financial assistance from New Mexico for capital projects through the Tribal Infrastructure Act.

“It’s a Catch-22,” he said.

The tribe has been trying for several years to establish gambling at the site between Deming and Las Cruces, which it acquired in 1998 and which was declared a reservation in 2011.

In 2008, then-Gov. Bill Richardson blocked the tribe from opening a high-stakes bingo machine operation at the site. The National Indian Gaming Commission, a federal regulatory agency, has told the tribe the Akela Flats site doesn’t qualify for gambling under federal law.

Just a year ago, the tribe asked the state to sign a gambling compact; the Martinez administration refused, citing the federal government’s position.

Jessica Hernandez, Martinez’s deputy chief of staff and lead compact negotiator, said this week that the administration continues to oppose a casino at Akela Flats. She said the tribe had repeatedly told the state it didn’t intend to put a casino there, starting with its statement to then-Gov. Gary Johnson in 2002 when the land was put into trust.

“Since that time, Fort Sill has broken that agreement and taken one step after another to move closer to gaming in New Mexico. This lawsuit is yet another example of those efforts,” Hernandez said in a statement.

Haozous says gambling revenue would help fund the return of tribal members to New Mexico.

“Certainly gaming will be a component of our being repatriated to the state,” he said.

But that’s not what the current lawsuit is about, he also said. “It’s about fair, even application of the law,” the chairman said.

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