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Tribe ‘in limbo’ over NM casino

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Now that the New Mexico Supreme Court has rejected the Fort Sill Apache Tribe’s request to order Gov. Susana Martinez to sign a gambling compact, the tribe must wait for the National Indian Gaming Commission to reconsider whether the tribe can offer gambling at its casino near Deming.

“We need to have the matter determined federally,” tribal Chairman Jeff Haozous told Journal editors Tuesday. “… We need to be taken out of limbo, one way or the other. Because we’re in limbo federally, it’s easy (for the state) to push us aside.”

Martinez has refused to negotiate a gaming compact with the tribe for years, saying the NIGC has withheld permission for the tribe to conduct gambling at its Apache Homeland Casino – a 5,000-square-foot facility erected in 2008 on Interstate 10 between Las Cruces and Deming.

The Oklahoma-based tribe – federally recognized as the “successor tribe” to the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches who once roamed much of southern New Mexico – purchased the 30-acre site at Akela in 1998. It was designated as a reservation by the Department of the Interior in November 2011 and is the tribe’s only reservation.

Two years before that, the tribe briefly conducted bingo games at the site, until the NIGC determined that the tribe had done so illegally. The tribe appealed that decision, and has waited ever since for a decision.

Meanwhile, the tribe operates a smoke shop and restaurant at the site.

Although the tribe asserts that it wants to use gambling revenues to help its 727 members – about half of whom live in Oklahoma – re-establish the tribe in its ancestral homelands, opponents say the tribe’s real goal is to cash in on tribal gambling.

Most recently, Haozous has been at odds with Martinez over her approval of a new gambling compact with the Navajo Nation, Jicarilla Apache Tribe, Mescalero Apache Tribe, Acoma Pueblo and Jemez Pueblo – an agreement that specifically excluded the Fort Sill Apaches.

Haozous claims the exclusion is “highly discriminatory” and possibly illegal.

Having hit a roadblock with the state, Haozous said, the tribe must now pin its hopes on the NIGC reversing its 2009 decision.

“After that, we are authorized to operate gaming facilities, and we would need to have a compact just like every other tribe,” he said.

Gerges Scott, a consultant to the tribe, said that when Martinez’s chief compact negotiator, attorney Jessica Hernandez, was asked during compact hearings whether the Martinez administration would negotiate with the Fort Sill Apaches if they received permission from the NIGC to conduct gaming, Hernandez said it would.

Hernandez, Martinez’s former deputy chief of staff and general counsel, was recently named as Albuquerque’s city attorney.

Although the NIGC “agreed to an expedited appeal” of its 2009 decision, Haozous said it has dragged its feet.

“We filed suit last May in federal court in Washington, D.C., asking a judge to compel them (NIGC) to make a decision,” he said.

That case remains pending.

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