As comebacks go, this one would be historic.

Members of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe on Thursday told New Mexico legislators they are working on a land swap that would add 2,100 acres to their tiny reservation 18 miles east of Deming.

“If we’re able to get this done, it’s the most significant development for the tribe in the 125 years since Geronimo surrendered and members were forced from their homeland and imprisoned,” said Joel Davis, attorney for the Fort Sill Apaches.

As it stands, the tribe’s 30-acre reservation in New Mexico is a speck on the footprint of its original territory.

Davis said the limited space makes it impossible to develop housing and many businesses. In turn, Apaches can’t return to their ancestral home.

Santa Fe artist Bob Haozous, an enrolled member of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, puts it another way.

“We can’t farm rocks,” he said. “The tribe is still victimized by the colonization that took away our land, our language, our people.”

Davis told state legislators on the Indian Affairs Committee he could not discuss details of the land swap, as the deal is being negotiated.

But in a later interview, he said the parcel the tribe wants to acquire is state trust land contiguous to the reservation. The land deal is of personal importance to Davis. His wife, 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son are enrolled members of the tribe. They live in Rio Rancho, and Davis’ law practice is based in Los Lunas. But the indignities of the 19th century in Southern New Mexico are as fresh to Davis as this morning’s headlines.

Westbound settlers wanted the homeland of Geronimo’s tribe, the Chiricahua Apaches. Geronimo spent three punishing decades defending his territory, which also included parts of Mexico and modern-day Arizona.

By September 1886, he couldn’t hold off interlopers any longer. He surrendered to the U.S. Army, hoping to salvage something in return.

The Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches were forced from their homeland, banished to other parts of the country as prisoners. Their exile was supposed to be relatively brief.

Davis says Geronimo’s agreement with the U.S. government called for the tribes to return to the Southwest in 1888. That promise was broken by President Grover Cleveland’s administration.

As far as the U.S. government was concerned, Apaches were prisoners of war. They were shipped to camps in Florida and Alabama. Some eventually attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.

Tribal members still at the mercy of the federal government were herded in 1894 to the Comanche and Kiowa reservation near Fort Sill in the Oklahoma Territory. This change in geography, not any connection to the land, gave the Fort Sill Apache Tribe its name.

Haozous knows the ugly history. His grandparents, Sam and Blossom Haozous, were held in the POW camps. They had a son in 1914, the year imprisonment ended for Fort Sill Apaches.

The world would come to know him as Allan Houser, a painter and sculptor of exceptional talent. Raised outside captivity, he became famous. Houser settled in the artist hub of Santa Fe, allowing his immediate family to replant roots in New Mexico.

Many other Fort Sill Apaches were made to feel unwelcome in New Mexico, even in the 21st century.

Then-Gov. Susana Martinez in 2013 called the Fort Sill Apaches an Oklahoma tribe whose main interest in New Mexico was opening a casino. She pointed out the tribe had only 147 members in New Mexico.

Martinez sidestepped history’s hard truths. The U.S. government had robbed the Apaches of their land and freedom. Their numbers were sure to be small given all the abuses.

The Fort Sill Apaches welcomed a confrontation with the Republican governor. They sued Martinez’s administration in the state Supreme Court.

Tribal leaders had long admitted a casino was in their plans. But they rebutted Martinez on the larger point, saying they want to rebuild their ancestral homeland.

Supreme Court justices deliberated only 15 minutes before ordering Martinez to recognize the Fort Sill Apaches as a New Mexico tribe. That was seven years ago, a hard-fought victory but only a start.

Davis said the tribe is moving ahead on one business venture that will employ about 50 people in job-starved Luna County. It will break ground in the next quarter on a full-service truck stop on Interstate 10.

As for the proposed casino, it has gone nowhere. Lawsuits by the federal government have scuttled the tribe’s hopes so far.

Land acquisition is an even bigger part of the Fort Sill Apaches’ hopes for a revival.

Without additional property, Davis said, it’s harder to rebuild a community and a culture. In some ways, Geronimo’s battle never ended.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

(9) comments

miguel de la o

Indians are from India and there are no humans native to the Americas. The people who came to the Americas an estimated 15,000 years ago are Primericans - the first Americans.

Richard Irell

America is named for an Italian named Amerigo Vespucci.

miguel de la o

Yes, I know this. The western hemisphere - the Americas - is named for a European.

However, I have never heard of any group who has suggested a name or have the history of a name for the western hemisphere not of the European baseline - the Americas. I certainly would be interested to know if there is another name for the western hemisphere.

Alexander Brown

Allotments , The Dawes Act were a complete reneging of Treaty rights. A scam and land grab. Fort Sill Apaches experience more of the same. History is now.

It's 9/11 supposedly the greatest terrorist act in US history. The irony is painful.

To every Native American who believes the greatest terrorist act in US was in fact forced upon them for centuries, a collective and Official apology is minimal.

Good Luck to the Fort Sill Apaches.

Stefanie Beninato

I have points of discussion that Milan ignored: The Chiricahua Apaches generally inhabited southwestern NM/ eastern AZ/and the equivalents in northern Chihuahua and Sonora. Some band of Chiracahuas were pushed east in the late 19C. The Chiricahuas surrendered the first time with the understanding that they would be transported out of their homelands for two years. Geronimo was a medicine man initially, but became a war chief out of necessity-- he heard that the military was going to kill all medicine men and so fled with less than 40 other members. By the time he surrendered for a second time in 1886, the military no longer offered the Chiricahuas the assurance they would return in 2 years

The documents indicate that the Kiowa Apaches offered the Chiricahuas a place of residence to get them out of the swamps of Alabama. When Ft Sill was reclaimed by the military around 1913-14, the US government offered the Kiowas allotments of land in OK; it offered the Chiricahuas three options: an allotment of land in OK; a reservation in AZ that apparently they had really disliked; or residence with their cousins at Mescalero. About two-thirds of the Chiricahuas chose to move to Mescalero, NM. One- third took allotments in OK. In the 1940s and for about a decade afterward, there was an Indian Claims Commission that reviewed claims of restitution for land lost by various tribes. The Chiricahua Apaches at Mescalero put in a claim and were compensated as I recall. So my question centers on did the Chiricahuas who remained in OK waive their right to claim tribal land in NM since they chose allotments of land in OK and why did the Ft Sill Apaches not pursue this claim in the 1940s? IMHO, there is a lot more complexity than initially meets the eye.

Emily Hartigan

The additional history seems interesting, but any choices under such tremendous historical duress hardly seem to count as "waiver" of land rights by Indigenous.

Joseph Hempfling

GOD BLESS THEM IN THEIR ENDEAVER TO BECOME SELF DETERMINING AND SELF SUFFICIENT AND STAY ON THE RED ROAD AND ONE DAY SMOKE THE PEACE PIPE AFTER ALL THAT THEY HAVE SUFFERED AND YET ENDURE. AND TO THINK THEY ARE THE REAL FIRST AMERICANS.

Mike Johnson

They could become Tesla dealers. Musk exploiting and manipulating Native Americans to evade state laws and make a buck for himself, disgusting.

Richard Irell

Your post is patronizing. These tribal people are not children being exploited and manipulated.

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