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.