They were proud warriors who became American prisoners of war, men and women herded from their homeland in the Southwest by the U.S. government and then held in distant outposts.
Geronimo was the best-known of these Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches. They lived in northern Mexico and what are now New Mexico and Arizona until 1886, when the brute force of cavalry soldiers pushed out the last of them.
Their 700 descendants are called Fort Sill Apaches, after the territorial Army post in Oklahoma where tribal members eventually were relocated during their imprisonment. Today, Fort Sill Apaches say their unwavering ambition is to return their ancestral home to New Mexico.
The tribe holds a spare 30-acre reservation off Interstate 10 near Deming and wants to continue developing it. But Gov. Susana Martinez has refused to recognize the tribe, depriving it of the chance to seek state financial support. Martinez’s administration says money is in short supply, and that the Fort Sill Apaches are an Oklahoma tribe, not one of New Mexico.
“The state believes that these limited resources are more appropriately reserved for those tribes that serve a population base here in New Mexico,” said Enrique Knell, Martinez’s press secretary. “The federal government has not recognized Fort Sill as a New Mexico tribe, finding that they lack any government structure or population base in New Mexico.”
On Monday, lawyers for the tribe and the governor will argue before the New Mexico Supreme Court about whether Fort Sill Apaches deserve recognition by the state. The outcome will either cement the tribe as part of New Mexico or make it harder for the tribe to turn its reservation into a place where people can live, work and visit.
In court briefs, Martinez’s administration argues that the Fort Sill Apaches’ main interest in New Mexico is opening a casino in hopes of capturing customers on the busy interstate that connects El Paso and Tucson, Ariz.
True enough, Fort Sill Apaches want to operate a casino, said Jeff Haozous, chairman of the tribe. But their desire to be in New Mexico is based on a more important interest — reclaiming their roots, he said.
His cousin, Emily Haozous of Santa Fe, is a tribal member who says she is frustrated with Martinez’s stand against Fort Sill Apaches.
“To say this is all about gambling and a casino is coming from a place of ignorance,” Emily Haozous, 40, said in an interview. “This is where we are from. This is who we are.”
Her great-grandparents, Sam and Blossom Haozous, were held in POW camps. In 1914, the year imprisonment ended for the Fort Sill Apaches, Sam and Blossom had a son. The world would come to know him as Allan Houser, a painter and sculptor of remarkable talent.
Raised outside captivity, Houser became famous. His skills and interests brought him to the artist hub of Santa Fe, enabling his immediate family to replant roots in New Mexico.
For so many others, returning to New Mexico ranged from difficult to impossible. Fort Sill Apaches were imprisoned at Army posts in Alabama and Florida after being removed from their homeland. Then, still at the mercy of the federal government, they saw their tribal base shifted in 1894 to Oklahoma.
Martinez’s legal team maintains that Fort Sill Apaches are effectively interlopers motivated by the prospect of profits from slot machines and card tables.
“The federal government recognizes Fort Sill as being located in the state of Oklahoma. … Fort Sill does not maintain communities, government facilities or a population base in New Mexico,” the governor’s lawyers wrote in their brief to the New Mexico Supreme Court.
Jeff Haozous said one reason that the tribe has not been able to better develop its reservation in New Mexico is that it has been denied access to the state tribal summit and money allocated for structural improvements.
He said the Fort Sill Apaches see New Mexico as home, both historically and as the place they are most comfortable now.
“It’s just not fair to be painted with the broad brush of gaming as our interest in New Mexico. That’s not what’s driving the lawsuit,” Jeff Haozous said. “We’ve asked for years to be included.”
In its court filing, Martinez’s administration said that, as long ago as 1999, then-Gov. Gary Johnson sent a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior objecting to Fort Sill Apaches using their land in New Mexico for a casino. The tribe’s interest in gambling as a business has not diminished, the state says.
Jeff Haozous, who lives in Oklahoma, said Martinez’s opposition to Fort Sill Apaches only makes it more difficult for tribal members to rebuild a population base in New Mexico. A similar argument was made by the tribe’s lawyers in their brief to the Supreme Court.
“That the majority of the population of the tribe has not yet returned to its aboriginal territory is not surprising, given respondents hostility and the relatively recent recognition of the tribe’s reservation in the area of its ancestral homeland,” they said.
Jeff Haozous said some of the arguments made against his tribe are specious, notably that it maintains its office in Oklahoma. The Navajo Nation’s headquarters is in Arizona, but that never stopped New Mexico from recognizing that tribe, nor should it, he said.
Emily Haozous said she had hoped her tribe could work in collaboration with the state. Instead, people who want to be part of New Mexico have been forced into the adversarial forum of a courtroom, she said.
Winning in court would lead the tribe to a long-awaited milestone.
“We would no longer be prisoners. We would have our home back,” Emily Haozous said.