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Persistence pays off for the White Mountain Apache Tribe

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WHITERIVER, Ariz. - Remember the old refrain, ''If at first you don't succeed, try, try again''? That kind of thinking has paid off for Arizona's White Mountain Apache Tribe.

The actual fort, nestled in stands of high country pine forest outside tribal headquarters in Whitewater, the reservation capital, has been here since early 1870. The U.S. Army gave up its claim to the buildings and property in 1922 and abandoned the site. The two dozen-plus historic structures and a companion cultural center/museum south of the tribe's popular Hon-Dah Casino occupy between 250 and 300 acres of the reservation's 2,600 square miles. Despite being only a small percentage of Apache country, this icon is now a focal point for tribal heritage through Nohwike' Bagowa (''House of our Footprints''), the Apache Cultural Center and Museum.

It was almost a story that never got written, only coming about through persistency. Seeking a way to rehabilitate the crumbling facilities, attorneys for the White Mountain Apache Tribe brought a lawsuit alleging that the U.S. government had ''breached its trust with respect to certain properties and improvements,'' ergo, the fort buildings themselves.

In a 2006 judicial update of federal case law involving American Indians, a small footnote details the rejection of that suit: ''The Court of Federal Claims held that legislation did not impose a fiduciary obligation on the government to maintain, protect, repair, and preserve Fort Apache for the benefit of the tribe.''

That adjudication didn't sit well with those who had filed it and, not willing to accept that interpretation and quietly go away, an appeal was filed that resulted in a reversal of that ruling and a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court in which the highest court affirmed the Appeals Court ruling in favor of the tribe.

As part of the legal decision, 24 of the 27 buildings (with the exclusion of dorms, classrooms and the cafeteria still being used by Theodore Roosevelt School students) were transferred to the tribe and the Fort Apache Heritage Foundation took over management responsibilities from the BIA.

Included in the settlement was a $12 million disbursement. ''Half of this was earmarked for stabilization and rehabilitation of the two dozen buildings with the remaining funds set aside to support ongoing and long-term maintenance costs,'' according to museum director Karl Hoerig.

With the impending transfer of control and responsibility, restoration work and other development is starting to be handled by the new managers (the Heritage Foundation) along with the tribe's Heritage Program and other stakeholders. With receipt of a Preserve America grant from the National Park Service, all entities are working together to finalize a master planning process to guide the work using White Mountain Apache Tribal member businesses as primary contractors.

''We are literally within days of having the transfer of custody of the fort facilities turned over to the tribe and the Heritage Foundation.

''This major master planning effort will create a roadmap for stabilizing the building foundations, restoration efforts and adaptive reuse. The project will allow for interpretive and visitor use planning and for economic development planning for the tribe and the region,'' Hoerig said.

A major public celebration of the transfer of Fort Apache will be held as part of the 8th Annual Great Fort Apache Heritage Reunion. ''Although the 2007 version of brick and mortar work has not yet begun until the transfer officially takes effect, that is imminent and we should very soon see some things really start to happen.''

In fact, the tribe's construction department has already been authorized to focus on restoration aspects of several of the school and dorm buildings, work that is already under way.

With additional building preservation funding support from a variety of partners (such as Arizona State Parks, Save America's Treasures, and the World Monuments Fund), many of the buildings in the worst need of repair have already been upgraded, including the original commanding officer's log cabin quarters, the general officers quarters and the stables.

Throughout the politicking, lawyering and planning stages, visitors to the central Arizona reservation property continue to stroll through the old fort via either guided or self-guided walking tours of the grounds and buildings, the old military cemetery, the many displays and artifacts at the Apache Culture Center and a re-created Apache Village adjacent to the center. A gentle four-mile hike on nearby recreational trails offers additional discovery of ancient petroglyphs and the Kinishba Ruins, remains of a village once occupied by ancestors of the Hopi and Zuni peoples that date back to 1400 AD.

Visit www.wmat.nsn.us, call the tribal Office of Tourism at (928) 338-1230 or the cultural center at (928) 338-4625 for further information.