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Fort Sill Apache Tribal Chairman Jeff Houser Talks About Past and Future Challenges

A Q&A with Fort Sill Apache chairman Jeff Houser.

Jeff Houser’s road to the office of chairman for the Fort Sill Apache Tribe ran through the American South. A lineal descendant of Apache leader Mangas Coloradas and nephew of the late Apache artist and sculptor Allan Houser, he was born in Norman, Oklahoma but grew up in Springdale, Arkansas, where his father worked for the federal government studying fish. Houser recalls that in elementary school, when the Thanksgiving subject of “Pilgrims and Indians” came up, he would bring a bow to class carved and painted by his grandfather, Sam Haozous, an Apache held as a prisoner of war by the U.S. Army in the 1880s.

Houser earned a bachelor of science in business administration degree from the University of Arkansas and a master of business administration degree from Duke University, and he then worked as a database and Internet marketing professional. Houser moved to southwest Oklahoma in July 2001, and was elected to the Fort Sill Apache Business Committee in October 2001.

The Fort Sill Apache Tribe, approximately 670 in number, is made up of the descendants of Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache imprisoned by the U.S. Army, along with Geronimo, for 28 years. After prisoner-of-war status ended for the Fort Sill Apache in 1914, those who did not move to the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico were given land in the vicinity of Apache, Oklahoma, which was within the boundaries of the former Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation. (The Apache tribe already in southwest Oklahoma is known in historic writings as the Kiowa-Apache or Plains Apache, now officially known as the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma.)

Through encouragement by his aunt, former tribal chair Ruey Darrow, Houser became interested in the workings of tribal government, and he was elected chairman in October 2002.

His 10 years as chairman have seen many accomplishments and challenges, including the building and growth of the Fort Sill Apache Casino in Lawton, Oklahoma, with a new hotel scheduled to open in early August; and the establishment of a tribal land base near Deming, New Mexico, part of the Apache’s original homelands. Houser has also found his tribe in the public eye in stories relating to Geronimo, as to whether or not Yale University’s Skull and Bones secret society had possession of Geronimo’s remains and the use of Geronimo’s name as a code word for Osama bin Laden’s capture or death.

Houser has also been finalizing the changing of his last name, Houser, to the original last name of his grandfather, Haozous. Houser said that he had a court decree to change his last name to Haozous, but had not done so with official documents. The use of “Geronimo EKIA” by the federal government encouraged him to finalize the name change, including on his driver’s license.

What has been your primary focus during your tenure?

Economic development and maintaining and developing our facility in Lawton [Fort Sill Apache Casino]. That’s my primary focus. I generally boil [my job] down to four priorities. One is economic development. Second is to provide for education for our young people. Our members are spread out all over the country. That’s probably true of all Oklahoma tribes. Because of that, we’ve found that the most effective use of our resources is to provide educational assistance for higher education.

[Third is] cultural education and promotion, and finally addressing our removal from our homelands in New Mexico. Our history still affects us daily, because we have never had a clear jurisdiction. Our people were placed in Fort Sill as prisoners of war in the middle of the KCA [Kiowa-Comanche-Apache] Reservation.

We were involved in a lawsuit with the Comanche Tribe in 2005. A result of that is there is an unclear determination of our jurisdictional range. It’s murky.

What experiences made you become a public servant?

I didn’t set out to become a tribal leader. I came for a temporary visit [to Oklahoma], and then I got more involved. The issues were a desire to learn more about my heritage and to get involved to improve things within the tribal government. Because I didn’t grow up here, I wanted to understand more about our background, particularly the imprisonment. We’re probably the only tribe that [had] the entire tribe in prison for 28 years.

What do you consider Apache values?

I’ve been told we’re pragmatic people. My experience is that we care a lot about fairness and cooperation. There’s a certain amount of persistence and dedication. Our people have wanted to return to New Mexico since our removal in 1886. We’re still working on that. It’s something our people were working on before I came here. After I’m gone—if we’re not done—I’m sure they’ll still be working on it.

What is your strategy for economic diversification?

We have a contracting business called Fort Sill Apache Industries. We have performed construction on a number of military

installations. Our biggest project was in Virginia at Fort Lee. It was a $50 million base. We cleared trees on the 300-acre site and then built sidewalks, roads, sewers and bridges for a logistics center campus. We’re currently working at Altus Air Force Base, Fort Sill and Tinker [Air Force Base].

What lessons do you take from Apache history?

I’d say it’s to not surrender.

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What is the current status of your lands in New Mexico?

We have 30 acres of trust land in southern New Mexico. It’s the newest, smallest reservation in the state of New Mexico. We still need to get the approvals for gaming. We’re working toward that.

Will the Fort Sill Apache Tribe be based in New Mexico or Oklahoma?

The ultimate decision will be up to our membership. We could never turn our back on what has been our home for more than a century. We have a lot of connections here and people involved with the communities. We would like to develop that in New Mexico as well. It would be both, I would think. Ultimately, generations from now, who knows? Half of our members live outside the state. If we build a gaming facility [in New Mexico] and people move there, things would probably [shift that way].

Has the United States adequately addressed its 28-year imprisonment of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe?

Some of the prisoners, I think, including my grandfather, took it to court, and it went to the Supreme Court. They declined to hear it. They said it was not a tribal issue; it was a matter of personal injury.

I guess my primary concern with the imprisonment, with respect to the United States and their role in it, is as a tribal leader—first of all, I don’t want to minimize it. Imprisonment is a big thing. It affects us now with the unclear jurisdiction. There were two reservations in Arizona and New Mexico in the 1800s. My grandfather was born on one of them. They were extinguished. Geronimo surrendered with the understanding that they would be able to come back in two years. That didn’t happen. They were promised a reservation on Fort Sill. They were there for 20 years, and then the government basically decided to use Fort Sill for artillery practice. Had they received a reservation there, the issue of the tribe’s jurisdiction, sovereignty and land base would be clear. But because the tribe never received a reservation, the granting of the rights of the KCA tribes is [confusing]. The [Fort Sill Apache] tribe could have had Fort Sill within the KCA [Reservation] for the permanent settlement of the Apache people. That didn’t happen.

What was your response to last year’s use of the code word Geronimo for the killing of Osama bin Laden?

I was pretty surprised. We wrote a letter to President Obama, asking him for an apology. We also proposed at [the National Congress of American Indians’s conference] this past November a resolution that asked the federal government not to use Native icons, names or representations for their military actions until they have a consultation process with the tribes.

What are the biggest issues affecting Indian country?

Health care is probably the biggest one, and [finding] a way to provide for the people with economic development and cultural preservation. Every tribe I speak to talks about language preservation. It’s something that we’ve wanted to do for a while. [The Fort Sill Apaches] haven’t had a native speaker for some time. At the last Apache summit in February, language preservation was probably the number one topic. I know that our language people have been working on it.

In addition to being chairman, what is your involvement in Apache culture?

I’m not involved enough. When I first got here, I learned some rudimentary language and learned church songs. I tried beading, but I’m just too klutzy.

How do you spend your off time?

I spend time with my wife and our dog, and we exercise. That’s pretty much it. I do spend a fair amount of my time with tribal work. It’s not like a job really—where you can go home at the end of the day. It’s more of a calling. I can’t leave it [at the office].

Do you see tribal leaders working together for the betterment of Indian country?

It depends on the individuals. In some areas, there’s a great degree of interest in working together. I would hope that they would definitely put their individual differences aside. Human nature being what it is, some people will. Some people won’t.

What can the world can learn from Apache people?

[The importance] of maintaining effort over the long haul, persistence and maintaining a long-term perspective.