As Fort Sill Apache try to expand in New Mexico, new suit stems from land dispute

Molly Young
Oklahoman

On a patch of land in southwest New Mexico, leaders of an Oklahoma tribe envision a future home. 

For that to happen, the Fort Sill Apache need to rebuild an economic base in the same area where their ancestors lived until they became prisoners of war. But decades of legal challenges have impeded their plans. The tribe itself is behind the latest lawsuit, alleging its former lawyers overcharged hundreds of thousands of dollars during failed attempts to open a casino on the land. 

The New Mexico land sits west of Las Cruces along Interstate 10, the state’s southernmost major highway where thousands of vehicles drive every day. The tribe plans soon to break ground on a convenience store there. Leaders hope some day to turn it into a truck stop that could become a job and economic hub. 

“We hope we’re going to be able to develop something (where) people will be able to locate there, to be a part of the community,” Chairwoman Lori Gooday Ware said. 

The tribe's $2.6 million legal bill — which Gooday Ware said exceeded the agreed-upon rate more than four times over — cut into financing for the planned store. The tribe hopes to recuperate some of the money through the lawsuit. 

“That would have really helped with that truck stop,” Gooday Ware said. “We are having to cut back on some things, because the cash flow is limited that we have right now.”

The Fort Sill Apache operate a restaurant and cigarette shop in Akela Flats, 18 miles east of Deming, New Mexico. The tribe now plans to build a convenience store.

Fort Sill Apache tribe forced to Oklahoma in early 1900s

The Fort Sill Apache tribe’s current economic driver is a casino in Lawton. The tribe’s ties to southwest Oklahoma began in captivity in 1894.

Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache originally lived in southwest New Mexico, southeast Arizona and northern Mexico. Leaders of those bands, among them Geronimo, surrendered to the U.S. government in 1886. They and their tribes remained prisoners of war for nearly three decades in Florida, Alabama and Oklahoma.

Fort Sill Apache families gained their freedom and received land allotments in 1914, seven years after Oklahoma became a state. In 1976, the tribe was formally recognized by the federal government. There are about 800 citizens of the tribe today.

More:Why one Oklahoma tribe required vaccines for every worker

The land granted to the Fort Sill Apache was within a reservation that had already been established for three other tribal nations: the Kiowa, the Comanche and the Apache, a distinct group. That has resulted in pushback against any plans by the Fort Sill Apache to expand its gaming operations in Oklahoma. The tribe agreed in 2007 to limit growth to settle a lawsuit filed by the Comanche Nation.

Fort Sill Apache rebuilding homeland ties in New Mexico

The Fort Sill Apache turned to New Mexico.

The tribe bought 30 acres of land in Akela Flats, a small town between Las Cruces and Deming, in 1998. Three years later, the Bureau of Indian Affairs agreed to take the land into trust, a special status where the federal government holds title to the land for the benefit of tribes.

After a legal challenge, the BIA agreed in 2011 to formally recognize the land as a reservation. The tribe also has additional non-trust land in New Mexico and is in talks to acquire more land from the state. The tribe also has some land in Arizona. 

“Little by little, we have been trying to get part of our ancestral lands back,” Gooday Ware said.

News: After decades of tension, Citizen Potawatomi, Shawnee pledge new start 

The Fort Sill Apache sued New Mexico to formally recognize its presence and to include it in all consultations with tribal nations. The New Mexico Supreme Court ordered state leaders to do so in 2014.

Some of the tensions among the tribal, state and federal governments stemmed from efforts to open a casino on Akela Flats land. It built a restaurant, cigarette shop and bingo hall. The National Indian Gaming Commission, the federal arm that regulates tribal gaming, has never allowed the Fort Sill Apache to legally operate in New Mexico.

The oversight body has cited a raft of reasons to deny gaming, such as the tribe’s relatively small presence on the land when its government is based in Oklahoma.

Phillip Thompson, a lawyer for the tribe, noted that the federal government’s actions in the late 1800s and early 1900s are the reason why the tribe’s economic footing in New Mexico remains tenuous today.

“The tribe was forced from this location,” he said. “Had they not been forcibly removed, we wouldn't be having this discussion.”

Legal fights continue after law firm bills Fort Sill Apache $2.6 million

Amid the tensions, the Fort Sill Apache hired global law firm Dentons to help it gain federal gaming approval. The tribe’s business committee approved $595,000 to cover the fees, Gooday Ware said. 

She said the funding came from the tribe’s economic development arm, which receives one-quarter of the gaming revenues that the tribe retains from its gaming operations in Oklahoma. The tribal government also gets one-quarter. Half goes to tribal citizens.

Dentons worked for the tribe from 2015 to 2018, Gooday Ware said. It wasn’t until 2019, after the previous chairman resigned, that it became clear that the legal bills far exceeded the approved budget.

“When we saw that it was $2.6 million, we were kind of shocked by seeing that,” she said. “That’s when we started looking for the invoices and looking more closely at them, and it just kind of went from there.”

In a statement, Dentons acknowledged its work for the tribe, but said the lawsuit had no merit. It said its work was approved by the former chairman of the tribe, who resigned in 2018.

“We respect tribal governments and tribal sovereignty,” the statement said. “In our work for the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, we took direction from the tribe’s previous leadership. We respect that the current leadership has a different viewpoint, but the claims are unsubstantiated and we have moved to dismiss the case.”

Dentons also has asked to move the case from the Southern Plains Court of Indian Offenses and Law to federal court, Thompson said. The former court hears criminal and civil cases that fall outside of state jurisdiction in issues involving the Fort Sill Apache, as well as the Apache, Caddo, Kiowa, Otoe-Missouria and Wichita and Affiliated Tribes.

More: Oklahoma tribes navigate Biden's new vaccine, testing mandates

The pandemic has slowed hearings in that court, so Thompson said he is unsure what timeline the case may be moving on. In the meantime, Thompson said financial experts are still sifting through all invoices to try to sort out where all the money went.

He said the tribe agrees that some of the costs were legitimate, but questions the necessity of many of the charges, particularly when multiple lawyers earning more than $500 an hour were on a single call. 

Thompson said the case is emblematic of how costly legal fights can hurt small tribal governments. “I’ve been practicing law now for about 30 years in Indian Country and you see this happen,” he said. “A big law firm like Dentons should not prey on small tribes.” 

Fort Sill Apache leaders met in June to lay out two- and five-year plans for future growth. Gooday Ware said the key focus is developing a convenience store, then truck stop on the New Mexico land.

Molly Young covers Indigenous affairs for the USA Today Network's Sunbelt Region of Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. Reach her at mollyyoung@gannett.com or 405-347-3534.