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.”