APACHE — For more than a century, the Fort Sill Apache Tribe has had a foot in two states: one in New Mexico, where the tribe traces its heritage, and the other in Oklahoma, where it has been based after being driven from its home.
Now, tribal officials are working to return the tribe to its federally designated reservation in Akela Flats, N.M. But they’re meeting resistance from New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who has refused to recognize the Fort Sill Apache Tribe as a New Mexico tribe.
In December, the tribe sued Martinez in New Mexico Supreme Court, seeking to force her to recognize the tribe. Tribal Chairman Jeff Haozous said that recognition would give the tribe access to a number of benefits and programs other New Mexico tribes enjoy. Oral arguments in the case begin March 10.
Based in Apache, about 20 miles north of Lawton, the tribe traces its heritage to the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache tribes. The U.S. Army took those tribes as prisoners of war in 1886, moving them from New Mexico and Arizona first to Florida and Alabama, and eventually to Oklahoma, where they were released.
At the time, the federal government promised the tribe a reservation in Oklahoma, but that promise was never fulfilled.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of the Interior approved a proclamation granting the tribe a 30-acre reservation in Akela Flats, a town on Interstate 10 between Deming and Las Cruces. That approval came after a dispute between the tribe and the Comanche Nation over plans to expand the Apache casino near Lawton.
But state officials refused to recognize the tribe as a legitimate New Mexico tribe, saying the tribe was trying to capitalize on the state’s gaming market.
“The state believes that these limited resources are best reserved for those tribes that serve a population base here in New Mexico,” Enrique Knell, a spokesman for Martinez, said in a statement. “The federal government does not recognize Fort Sill as a New Mexico tribe, finding that they lack any government structure or population base in New Mexico.”
But Haozous argued that in denying the Fort Sill Apache Tribe recognition, the state is treating the tribe differently than it treats other American Indian tribes that occupy areas in more than one state. The Navajo Nation spans areas in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, and yet the state recognizes the Navajo as a New Mexico tribe.
“It’s really just a matter of the fair application of existing law,” Haozous said.
Haozous said the tribe has been interested in returning to New Mexico since it was removed — well before tribal gaming existed. The tribe will continue developing its New Mexico land even if it never gains state recognition. At some point, the tribe could move its headquarters from Oklahoma to New Mexico.
But state recognition could make that process easier, he said. It would allow the tribe to participate in New Mexico’s annual tribal summit, which would give tribal officials the chance to interact with other tribes and state agencies, Haozous said.
Recognition would also give the tribe access to infrastructure financing the state offers to other tribes, he said. Those resources would be useful as the tribe continues to try to develop its land in Akela Flats.
“It’s just a matter of fairness,” he said. “We’re just seeking equal treatment under the law.”