Fort Sill Apache Tribe Files Motion against US Interior Department and Federal Government
The Fort Sill Apache Tribe of Oklahoma filed a motion last week hoping the court system would allow them to operate casinos on their New Mexico lands. The tribe owns land in southern New Mexico, but a May 2015 decision by the National Indian Gaming Commission ruled that gaming activity in New Mexico would violate a 2007 settlement betwen the tribe and the US federal government.
The Fort Sill Apaches earlier had filed a complaint, but in last week’s motion, it amended that complaint in order to add the federal government and the U.S. Interior Department as defendants in the case. The Apaches say the agreement fulfills a promise made to their tribe by the US government in 1886.
Fort Sill Apache Chairman’s Statement
Jeff Haozous, the chairman of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, said in a prepared statement, “It’s the latest of a long string of broken promises by the U.S. since its agreement with Geronimo in 1886 to return our people to their homeland after two years of imprisonment. We are asking the court to compel the defendants to uphold this latest agreement that was made with us so that at long last our people can return to their rightful home.”
When asked for a comment, a spokesman for the Interior Department said the agency cold not comment on pending litigation. Members of the Fort Sill Apaches are descended from the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches. Those bands lived in southern New Mexico and Arizona in the 19th century, but were removed from their lands in the 1880s.
The Apaches’ Trail to Oklahoma
The government promised they would be able to return to their lands after a period of integration, but instead moved them around the country. The Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches were moved first to Florida, then to Alabama, and eventually were settled in Oklahoma.
Tribal Lands in New Mexico
In 2011, the federal government designated 30-acre strip of land in southern New Mexico as the Fort Sill Apaches‘ tribal lands. The land, which is nearest to the town of Deming, New Mexico, has been held in trust for the tribe by the US government since 2002.
The Apache governmental offices are in Oklahoma, though, which presented some legal issues for the tribe. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 states that gambling cannot take place on land which was placed in trust after 1988. The tribe acknowledges that is the law, but say their case is an exception to the rule. The tribe argues that the rule doesn’t apply to “restored land”–that is, land which was federally recognized as part of the tribe’s original reservation.
National Indian Gaming Commission’s Decision
The National Indian Gaming Commission pointed to a 2001 letter from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which approved the acquisition of the lands in southwestern New Mexico. The letter cited a 1999 resolution by the Fort Sill Apache Tribe which said it “was removing gaming as a purpose for this acquisition.”
The administration of New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez has rejected the tribe’s attempts to use the land as a gaming venture, citing the same 1999 pledge. The Fort Sill Apaches took that decision to the New Mexico Supreme Court, which rejected their claims based on the 2007 agreement. Now, the Apaches are calling for the New Mexico Supreme Court to reverse its decision.
2007 Agreement with Comanche Nation
The 2007 agreement came about after a dispute with the Comanche Nation in Oklahoma. The Fort Sill Apache Tribe had bought land on the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache reservation in Oklahoma, but the Comanche Nation moved to stop the Apaches from opening a casino on that reservation land.
The Apache leadership says they agreed in 2007 not to open a casino on their lands in Oklahoma, but a stipulation of that agreement suggested they would be able to open a casino their New Mexico lands. The tribe now feels as if they have been frozen out in both states, while tribes which were more selfish or worldly have the political clout to freeze them out. So far, their appeals to state and federal authorities have gone on deaf ears.
Suit against Interior Department
Federal law stipulates that the US Interior Department cannot grant compact gaming rights in a settlement agreement. The Fort Sill Apache Tribe says the Department of the Interior, which traditionally has handled tribal affairs, promised in 2007 to help the tribe gain gaming rights in New Mexico. The lawsuit thus names the Interior Department and the federal government as defendants, in order to force the Feds to follow through on their promises.
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