Oklahoma court rules against Fort Sill Apaches in casino fight

Deming, New Mexico (AP) 8-08

A federal judge in Oklahoma has denied the Fort Sill Apache Tribe’s request for an order that the tribe hoped would help in its battle to open a casino near Deming in southern New Mexico.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot on during August denied the tribe’s request for an order enforcing a 2007 settlement between the tribe and the federal government, the Albuquerque Journal reported in a copyright story.

The Fort Sill Apaches hope the settlement will lead to establishing a 30-acre reservation at the Akela exit off Interstate 10 near Deming – a possible way for the tribe to open the casino there.

The tribe contends the federal government must “timely process” the reservation application under the 2007 settlement of a land dispute in Oklahoma with the Comanche Nation resolving the Comanches’ request that the government shut down and stop the expansion of a Fort Sill Apache casino in Lawton, Okla.

In response to the Apache tribe’s request, a Bureau of Indian Affairs official said the federal government could not proceed with the application until the tribe finishes an environmental assessment on its proposed activities at the site.

Fort Sill Apache attorney Phillip Thompson said the tribe will comply with the judge’s directive to finish the environmental assessment.

An attorney for the National Indian Gaming Association said in an advisory opinion in May that the Oklahoma tribe cannot open a casino on the New Mexico land. The opinion said there is no basis under federal law for the Fort Sill Apaches to operate the casino about 500 miles away from their main governmental offices in Oklahoma.

Before the opinion could become final, the tribe withdrew its gaming application before the commission.

At issue is land purchased by the tribe in 1998 and taken into trust by the Interior Department for the tribe in 2002. In March, the tribe submitted a gambling ordinance to the commission to gain federal approval for a casino.

Federal law prohibits gambling on Indian lands taken into trust after October 1988, except under certain conditions. The Oklahoma tribe doesn’t qualify to operate a casino on its New Mexico land under any of those exceptions, according to the advisory opinion.

However, the federal gaming law contains an exemption for tribes granted a reservation for the first time.

Members of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe are descendants of the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches, who lived in parts of New Mexico, Arizona and northern Mexico but were removed in the 1880s and sent first to Florida and later to Oklahoma.

The legal opinion said 26 enrolled members of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe live in New Mexico – about 4 percent of tribal membership.