- Associated Press - Thursday, January 23, 2014

AKELA FLATS, N.M. (AP) - It’s been nearly five years since the Fort Sill Apache tribe sparked a dramatic showdown with state authorities when it attempted, unsuccessfully, to launch slot-machine-like bingo on a plot of land part way between Las Cruces and Deming.

From a 12,000-square-foot building, the Oklahoma-based tribe is still running a smoke shop and a small cafe, serving soft drinks and sandwiches to Interstate 10 travelers and local residents who drop by.

Despite setbacks, tribal members still have aspirations to carry out gaming on the 30-acre parcel, said Fort Sill Apache Chairman Jeff Haozous, who visited the site recently. That’s part of what they say is a larger plan to re-establish the tribe’s presence in southern New Mexico — a region from which their ancestors were removed in the late 1800s as prisoners of war.

The tribe had poured its energies in recent years into applying for the right to game via a two-part test that requires approval from both the U.S. Department of the Interior and a state’s governor. That’s one of the exemptions to a federal gaming law that otherwise prohibits gaming on tribal lands acquired after 1988. The Fort Sill Apache tribe gained federal “trust” status for its Akela land in 2002.

Haozous said the tribe went for the two-part test route after a letter from the Martinez administration in 2011 to the National Indian Gaming Commission, a federal regulatory board, suggested it as a possibility. The tribe was hopeful about Martinez’s stance on the casino project, especially in light of the rocky relationship it had with former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who left office at the end of 2010.

But Haozous said the tribe began picking up indications around March 2013 that the governor didn’t support the casino plan, based on remarks Martinez made on a Deming radio program.

“That led us to believe it was not fruitful,” he said of the two-part route.

In an April 2013 meeting with federal officials and an attorney for the Martinez administration, Haozous said the tribe was handed a clearer message: “The attorney said: ‘The governor does not support this project.’”

That, as well as what Haozous said was a more-recent rejection by the Martinez administration of the tribe’s requests for equal standing among New Mexico tribes, is prompting the tribe to look once again to an earlier route that revolves around a case pending before the gaming commission.

The case stems from the Fort Sill Apache tribe launching paper bingo games at the Akela location in April 2009. The tribe had argued it had the legal grounds to host bingo, based on another exemption outlined in federal law.

That was followed up with an order from the Washington, D.C.-based NIGC chairman, who issued a notice of violation to the tribe and demanded it halt gaming. The tribe did, but it also appealed the decision.

The case is pending before the gaming commission.

Eric Shepard, acting general counsel for the gaming commission, said recently that, because the matter hasn’t been decided, he can’t say much about its status or the time line for a ruling. He did outline the possible outcomes, which include that the notice of violation could be overturned or upheld.

If the violation is overturned, it wouldn’t necessarily mean the Fort Sill Apache tribe has the right to carry out gaming at Akela, Shepard said.

“It would depend on the grounds for why it was overturned,” he said.

If the tribe does get a favorable decision, Haozous said it would move fast to relaunch bingo in Akela. It could happen within 45 to 60 days.

“If the federal government determines it’s legal for us to offer gaming here, we can offer bingo or bingo machines,” he said. “We can offer those without any oversight from the state or paying any fees to the state.”

Meanwhile, full-fledged casino-style card games, known as Class III gaming, would require the Fort Sill Apache tribe to enter into a compact agreement with the state of New Mexico, Haozous said.

Because members have invested so much time and money into an application via the other route — the two-part test — the tribe likely will submit an application to the federal government through that route as well, Haozous said.

“We’re hoping to complete our application and submit it to the federal government,” he said. “It should be any day.”

Haozous maintains that gaming is part of a larger plan to create a hub of economic activity that would attract tribal members to their ancestral lands, he said.

“Gaming provides a narrow range of opportunities, and it’s a very specific industry,” he said. “My goal is to help develop an economy to help our people.”

Jobs could be created for tribal and nontribal members, for instance, through a Fort Sill Apache-owned construction company, Haozous said.

In December, the tribe filed a lawsuit against the Martinez administration, alleging it had refused to cooperate with the tribe in its requests for New Mexico recognition.

Haozous contends that the state last year ignored the Fort Sill Apache tribe’s request to be invited to an important yearly state gathering of tribes and pueblos. Just before the June 2013 meeting, the tribe was told by the state it wasn’t welcome to attend.

Haozous said those meetings are the start to the process of tribes laying out their infrastructure needs, which results in funding awards. He said the state also hadn’t listed the Fort Sill Apache on a key listing that’s important to state agencies as they interact with tribes and pueblos statewide.

“For reasons unbeknown to us, we weren’t be treated equally under the law,” he said in a recent interview.

Haozous contended the lack of state recognition has hurt the tribe’s construction business in competing for a pool of federal contracts in New Mexico that are awarded to minority groups.

Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell has said the tribe is an Oklahoma tribe trying to capitalize on the gaming market in New Mexico and that the tribe’s initial indications were that the land wouldn’t be used for gaming, according to The Associated Press.


Information from: Las Cruces Sun-News, https://www.lcsun-news.com

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