Fort Sill Apaches seek to speed up process to open NM casino
LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) - The Fort Sill Apache Tribe of Oklahoma has filed a motion in federal court in Oklahoma City, asking the federal government to quickly process an application granting reservation status to 30 acres of New Mexico land where the tribe wants to open a casino.
The tribe hopes gaining reservation status for the land will lead to the start of business at the casino just off Interstate 10 in Luna County, despite opposition from Gov. Bill Richardson, who in February ordered state police to block access to the casino.
The National Indian Gaming Commission told the Fort Sill Apache Tribe in late February that it cannot legally open the casino and risked enforcement action if gaming is permitted on the tribally owned land in New Mexico.
Gaining reservation status for the land is a key step toward the tribe's opening the casino on the site because of a federal law that prohibits Indian gaming on most trust lands granted after 1988. The tribe gained its New Mexico trust land in 2002.
But one exception to the law is when a tribe is granted a reservation for the first time, as would be the case for the Fort Sill Apaches, if the land is given reservation status.
The tribe contends that the federal government has been slow to act on its reservation application, despite a 2007 settlement agreement that called for the BIA to ''timely process'' the request.
The tribe sent its application in April 2006 and got confirmation in May 2006 that the document reached officials, according to the filing. The tribe says it didn't receive further correspondence from the federal government about the request until March 4.
Fort Sill Apache Tribe Chairman Jeff Houser said after a recent conversation with the BIA officials, he doesn't believe the agency intends to complete the processing.
By failing to act, he said, the federal government is not upholding its end of the 2007 settlement.
Houser said he thinks opposition to the casino by New Mexico officials, including Richardson, is behind the federal government's failure to act.
''Basically, my point of view is that we had an agreement with the government, and that because of political pressure from the state of New Mexico, they're trying to renege on the deal,'' he said.
George Skibine, director of the Office of Indian Gaming Management in the BIA's Washington, D.C., office, said the federal government is processing the tribe's reservation request.
He declined to comment about the tribe's recent court motion, but said the government will file a formal response.
The 6,000-square-foot casino is stocked with electronic slot machine-like bingo games.
Houser maintains that the federal government in the 2007 settlement understood that it was laying the groundwork for the tribe to submit an application for gaming in New Mexico. Had that not been the case, he said, the tribe never would have agreed in the settlement to giving up its right to expand gaming at a casino it operates in Lawton, Okla.
Skibine denied that the tribe was ever promised it would be granted the right to game in New Mexico.
''That's not the case; and if that were the case, I think they'd make sure to include a provision like that in the settlement agreement,'' he said.
The 2007 settlement resolved a lawsuit by the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma against the federal government and the Fort Sill Apache Tribe. The Comanche Nation had been asking the federal government to shut down and prevent the expansion of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe's Oklahoma casino.
Members of the Fort Sill Tribe are descendants of the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches, who once roamed southwestern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona and northern Mexico.
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