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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   November 2009


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Last Chance?

Gambling is off again at the Apache Homelands Café — maybe for good.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since April 2008, when gaming at the Apache Homelands Café in Akela Flats, west of Deming, was shut down by Gov. Bill Richardson with 20 state police cars.

In April this year the Fort Sill Apaches started up regular weekend paper bingo games. Then in late September these games were suspended, this time to avoid fines while awaiting a decision by the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC).

The bingo games may be heading toward their demise — but maybe not.

The Apache Homelands Café is in an inconspicuous building near the Akela Flats Trading Post, but the tribe has been talking all along about expanding to provide possibly 400 jobs with great benefits.

This obviously means a lot in Luna County, with an unemployment rate that hovers around 15%, the highest in the state. "It's extremely important to me because of the fact that the benefits are to die for," says current employee Edwina Hamilton.

And Fort Sill Apaches are among the poorest tribes in Oklahoma, according to Oklahoman reporter Ron Jackson. The small tribe owns one successful casino in Lawton, Okla.

From the beginning, tribal chairman Jeff Houser has been trying every legal technique he knows to make the casino a reality. The Café opened at first in 2008 with the clear intention of holding bingo games, even though the Oklahoma tribe had signed documents stating they would not have gaming when they bought their land on trust with the US government in 2002.

Not too long after that, in July, a $10,000 poker tournament was held there with mostly Tigua Indians from El Paso, in a conscious effort to provoke some kind of legal action. (According to flustered Tigua tribal governor Frank Paiz, the players were acting on their own.)

Gaming at the café then went dormant until April 2009, when it began holding paper bingo games on weekends. The state government treated this situation very delicately this time. Fifty or sixty customers played on weekends all summer without harassment from authorities.

But the NIGC chairman reached a decision in July against the claims of the Fort Sill Apache that they could be considered a "restored tribe," one of the conditions for opening an Indian casino.

In September, when Gov. Richardson visited the Luna County Courthouse, the café organized an employee protest in Deming against the decision. The protest was arranged, but the participants were genuinely enthusiastic. Employees are now working toward getting support from local politicians.

But the latest episode of the saga, the suspension of gaming once more, has a weary feel to it. "I actually don't expect anybody to support our gaming efforts," says Houser.

There's just a whiff of optimism brought about by President Obama's changing of the guard at the NIGC. Houser pins his hopes on a federal court decision in Oklahoma involving a dispute with Comanches, which he claims "lays out an argument that we're a restored tribe."

He says a decision is expected early next year.

—Marjorie Lilly

 

 

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