The tribe on Tuesday announced it had been awarded a proclamation establishing a reservation on 30 acres near Deming. The land had been held in trust for the tribe by the federal government.
The announcement did not address whether the tribe would renew attempts to build a casino on the site, which was not allowed because the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act restricts gaming on some trust lands.
According to a news release from the tribe, the U.S. Interior Department approved the reservation proclamation earlier this month.
“This has been a very long time coming,” Fort Sill Apache Chairman Jeff Haozous said in the news release. “After decades of continued effort to return to our legal and ancestral homeland, we are elated that the U.S. Government has officially granted us this Reservation Proclamation,” Haozous said.
“Our ancestors would be proud of the work the Tribe has done to see this Reservation Proclamation through to completion. Our people have never given up on our dream of returning to the land we once occupied before forced evictions, first to Florida, then to Alabama and finally to Oklahoma,” Haozous said.
The tribe in 2008 sought the right to build a gambling operation on the site, and for a short time operated a bingo hall there. The bingo hall closed after a dispute with then-Gov. Bill Richardson, who at one point ordered the State Police to block access to the property.
The Fort Sill Apaches are descendants of the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Bands, which roamed through southern Arizona and southern New Mexico.
When Geronimo surrendered to the United States in 1886, according to the tribe, it was on the condition that he and his people would return to their homeland in two years. Instead, the U.S. government held the tribes as prisoners of war and moved them from the Southwest to Florida, then Alabama and finally Oklahoma. They were considered prisoners of war for 27 years until their release in 1913.
The federal government agreed in a 2007 settlement to “accept and timely process” a Fort Sill Apache application for a reservation status on the 30-acre Akela Flats site near Deming.
The 2007 settlement resolved a lawsuit in which the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma asked the federal government to shut down and halt the expansion of a casino run by the Fort Sill Apaches in Lawton, Okla.
The Fort Sill Apaches do not have a reservation in Oklahoma.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act prohibits gaming on most tribal trust land acquired after 1988, and the Fort Sill Apaches acquired the Akela Flats property in 1998. But the federal gaming act contains an exemption for tribes granted a reservation for the first time.
The National Indian Gaming Commission in May told the Fort Sill Apache tribe that the Akela Flats property did not qualify for gaming under IGRA.
“Our many years of patience, persistence and dedication to returning to our homeland are evident in receipt of this Reservation Proclamation,” Haozous said. “This further confirms our status as an official Tribe in the state of New Mexico. We look forward to the day when our tribal sovereignty here is also fully recognized and we are equal to our fellow New Mexico sovereign tribes and pueblos.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal