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D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    May 2008

High Stakes

The Chiricahua Apache want to open a $20 million casino in Akela. But they're betting against New Mexico's governor and both US senators.

By Marjorie Lilly

The inconspicuous stucco building stands near the tangle of entrances and exits off I-10 to Akela, 20 miles east of Deming. It's located west of the Akela Flats Trading Post, the store with the long facade painted with scenes of life in the Old West.

A big banner in front of it reads: "Apache Homelands Casino, Restaurant and Smoke Shop, Open 24 Hours." Inside, the place is more than half filled with blinking electronic bingo machines, and there's a cafe at the far end.

Restaurant manager Dennis Floge (left) with employees Rick Flores, Tony Guevara and Marty Pope. The eatery is open even as the tribe fights to build its $20 million casino. (Photo by Marjorie Lilly)

Chiricahua Apaches from Fort Sill, Okla., intend to establish a casino there, and New Mexico officials intend to shut it down.

On Feb. 28 about 20 state police cars blocked the entrance to the building, by order of Gov. Bill Richardson. Management was carrying out an orientation for their new employees and wasn't planning to open for a month or so. The cafe opened about a week into April. It appears that a legal battle is simmering, and it's not going away soon.

One on side of the issue are Gov. Bill Richardson, supported by Senators Jeff Bingaman and Pete Domenici. They say the Apaches agreed not to open a casino on the land when they acquired it in trust with the federal government in 2002, to conform to rules established by the National Indian Gaming Commission.

On the other side is Tribal Chairman Jeff Houser of the Fort Sill Apaches. He claims they do have a legal right to operate a casino and that the New Mexico state government doesn't have jurisdiction over their tribe.

Between these opponents are the ranks of the unemployed in Luna County, with the highest unemployment rate in the state, who possibly stand to gain hundreds of well-paying jobs if the Apaches win.

Chiricahua Apaches have always dreamed of returning to their homeland in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona, where they used to roam freely in the rocky mountains and wide deserts. They had a reservation established between 1872 and 1876. It stretched from the Rio Grande in the east to Monticello (near Truth or Consequences) in the north, into Arizona as far as Benson and down to the Mexican border. But with perpetual conflicts with the US Army. This didn't last long.

The Fort Sill reservation actually includes Warm Springs Apaches, too, but Houser says he and others tend to use the term "Chiricahua" as a kind of "shorthand," even though he himself is descended from a grandfather that lived in the Warm Springs area near Truth or Consequences.

"Our people have waited to return to southwest New Mexico since we were moved in 1886," says Houser. That was the year Geronimo and his people surrendered to the US Army and were tragically removed to Florida. (See "So Many Tigers," August 2007, and "Letters from Exile," in the December 2007 Desert Exposure.) About half of those 500 men, women and children, accustomed to the dry Southwest climate, died in Florida's suffocating humidity or later contracted malaria or tuberculosis when they were transported to Alabama.

The Fort Sill Apache Web site (fortsillapache.com) says, referring to other Indian tribes in the US, "None received such an unconscionable period of confinement [as the Chiricahua]. All either retained their lands or were given new reservations. In all the history of federal government-American Indian relations the situation which confronted the Chiricahua represents a most unprecedented case of injustice."

In 1894 the Apaches were moved for humanitarian reasons to Fort Sill in Oklahoma. For many reasons over the decades they never officially formed as a tribe until 1977, when they organized to get access to Tribal Government Development Programs that were beginning to proliferate in that decade.

There are now about 640 Fort Sill Apaches — a quarter on the small reservation, a quarter in the rest of Oklahoma, and half in other states. "All are descendants of the 80 prisoners of war released in 1914," says Houser. A lot of them are descendants of Geronimo. They own a casino in Fort Sill that makes about $10 million a year, half of which is divided among the tribe's members.

There seems to be a general understanding that the tribe would like to buy more of the low-cost land in Akela and elsewhere in this area to re-establish themselves on their aboriginal lands. With their present casino in Oklahoma, they now have money for land acquisition they never had before. But Houser is for now holding his cards close to his chest, so to speak, on this issue.

He claims the tribal government started planning for a casino at Akela when they were having legal problems with the Fort Sill casino in 2005. "In settling the lawsuit, we gave up most of our jurisdictional rights in Oklahoma," he says.

Casino opponents say the Fort Sill Apaches gave up their request to use the 30-acre parcel at Akela for gaming in 1999 after then-Gov. Gary Johnson opposed the idea. When Sen. Jeff Bingaman heard the tribe was already making preparations for a casino in January this year, without legal authority, he asked the Department of the Interior to review the situation in a letter dated Jan. 29.

"This land was taken into trust under certain conditions," says Jude McCarten of Bingaman's office in Washington. "Gaming was taken off the table." There is a general ruling that if land is acquired after the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, it can't be used for a casino unless it meets special criteria of various types.

Houser acknowledges the tribe had agreed at one point to forego their plans for a casino, but responds that "governments change their minds, and that is what we did."

Houser goes on, "The decision to approve our casino for gaming rests with the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), not with the state of New Mexico." He is hoping the NIGC will recognize the right to certain special exceptions to the usual requirements laid out by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. These are, one, that the Fort Sill Apaches are considered a "restored tribe" as of 1977 and, two, that the lands are part of the tribe's "last recognized reservation."

There is some controversy over whether that reservation would be the one that spanned New Mexico and Arizona, or the San Carlos reservation where Chiricahuas were brought against their will for a time after the former reservation was dissolved.

The Akela restaurant has never been controversial and is now open to the public. "The governor gave us a lot of advertising," say General Manager Dennis Floge.

Floge, originally a New Yorker, has been involved with gaming for over 30 years. He is currently making trips to work as a consultant on casinos in the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Panama from time to time. "I build 'em, I fix 'em, I operate them," he says. But he spends most of his time in Akela.

He says it was late afternoon on Feb. 28 when the state police moved in on them. "They had been out here surveilling us all day," Floge says. "We knew they were there." Floge sides with the tribe on the casino issue, understandably.

Early this year the tribe held a job fair in Deming, to which local residents flocked en masse. "There were 400 people at the job fair," Floge recalls. "We interviewed 100 and hired 80. Currently there are 16 people working. All with the exception of one or two were unemployed." He mentions one man with six kids who had been unemployed: "And now he has a job with benefits."

The tribe hopes to eventually expand to construct a $20 million, 11,000-square-foot casino that will offer many more positions for job-starved Luna County. For most jobs the company offers a very good benefits package, Floge says.

The cafe has a long menu of items written on a chalkboard with names like Full Deck Ribs ($17.99), Four Aces Meatloaf ($6.79) and Bingo Burger ($5.79), which Floge describes as "casino-style" food. ("The meat loaf has to meet my mother's standards," he quips.) He says they spent two weeks carefully working out the menu.

The cafe has been getting a steady stream of customers since they opened, mostly from the Deming area. "The food is good," says waiter Tony Guevara. "We're getting good feedback from it."

"I'm in cash flow right now," says Floge. "I'm in for the long haul."

Marjorie Lilly writes the monthly Borderlines column. She lives in Deming.



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