- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 23, 2011

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.

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, he said. 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 Apache have a 10-acre headquarters in Oklahoma and 120 acres of farmland, Mr. Houser said, but no reservation.

The tribe’s attorney, Phillip Thompson of Thompsons Associates in Washington, said he was not sure when the Bureau of Indian Affairs last created a new reservation.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Mr. Houser, who also uses the tribal spelling of his name, said the goal is to return the tribe to its ancestral homelands in New Mexico. And, ultimately, the tribe hopes to be able to build a casino on the site, he said.

“Given that the ultimate goal would be to return, that really requires a lot of resources,” Mr. Houser 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 gambling on most tribal trust land acquired after 1988, but it contains an exemption for tribes who are being granted a reservation for the first time.

Mr. Thompson said the tribe is appealing the National Indian Gaming Commissions rejection of its past effort to build a casino on the site.

“We already argued this was our de facto reservation. This just solidifies what we already argued,” he said. “We will probably just send a letter to the commission asking them to take notice.”

Mr. Thompson said the tribe is also talking with state and federal officials about getting the necessary endorsements to build a casino.

The reservation designation, he said, “solidifies our position that we are a New Mexico tribe and that as a New Mexico tribe we should have the same abilities as the tribes in the rest of the state to be able to game on our land.”

Mr. Thompson said he was not sure when the last new American Indian reservation was created, saying it happens occasionally but not often. The tribe, Mr. Houser said, has 685 members, about a quarter of whom live near tribal headquarters, another quarter live elsewhere and about half of whom live outside Oklahoma.

Mr. Houser said that while the proclamation gives the tribe just 30 acres, “hopefully we can expand our presence.”’

Asked if he would move tribal headquarters to New Mexico, Mr. Houser said, “that is not my decision. But that is my dream.”