ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — More than 125 years after the surrender of renowned Apache leader Geronimo scattered tribal members across the Southwest, the Fort Sill Apache have won the right to establish a reservation on homelands in southern New Mexico.
"This is what I see as the start of a long journey home," said Jeff Houser, chairman of the tribe whose headquarters are currently based in southwest Oklahoma.
Houser said the U.S. Interior Department earlier this month approved a proclamation that awards the Fort Sill Apache 30 acres to establish a reservation near Deming. It comes four years after the federal government put the land on the Akela Flats in trust to settle a dispute between the tribe and the Comanche Nation in Oklahoma over the Fort Sill Apache's plans to expand their casino in Lawton, Okla.
The Fort Sill have a 10-acre headquarters in Oklahoma and 120 acres of farmland, Houser said, but no reservation.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Houser said the goal is to return the tribe to its ancestral homelands in New Mexico. And ultimately, he said the tribe will likely reopen efforts to build a casino on the site.
"Given that the ultimate goal would be to return, that really requires a lot of resources," he said. "We could probably house all the tribal members that want to move there, but that would increase the unemployment rates in the county. If we build a casino, that could provide jobs."
The tribe's efforts to establish gaming on the land in the past were blocked. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act prohibits gaming on most tribal trust land acquired after 1988, but contains an exemption for tribes who are being granted a reservation for the first time.
The tribe, Houser said, has 685 members, about a quarter of whom live near tribal headquarters, a quarter of whom live elsewhere and about half of whom live outside Oklahoma.
Houser said that while the proclamation gives the tribe just 30 acres, "Hopefully we can expand our presence."
Members of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe are descended from the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches, who lived in parts of New Mexico, Arizona and northern Mexico. They were removed from the area in the 1880s and sent first to Florida, then Oklahoma.
Houser said his ancestors would be proud of the tribe's efforts to return to New Mexico. His grandfather, he said, was born on the Ojo Caliente Reservation near Truth or Consequences in the 1800s.
"Our many years of patience, persistence and dedication to returning to our homeland are evident in receipt of this Reservation Proclamation," Houser said in a statement. "This further confirms our status as an official Tribe in the state of New Mexico. We look forward to the day when our tribal sovereignty here is also fully recognized and we are equal to our fellow New Mexico sovereign tribes and pueblos."