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Tonto Apache Tribe acquires 293 acres

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On June 1, the Tonto Apache Tribe and the United States Department of Interior completed a lands to trust acquisition that added 293 acres of land adjacent to the tribe’s existing reservation to be held in trust for the benefit of the Tribe.

The acquisition will more than quadruple the size of the tribe’s existing 85-acre reservation which was originally set aside for the tribe by federal law on Oct. 6, 1972. The tribe’s present reservation and the additional 293 acres are all lands within the vast aboriginal territory occupied by the Tonto Apache.

The road to obtain the 293 acres has been long and arduous, and is a testament to the perseverance of the Tonto Apache people to survive in the face of all odds. During the early 1900s, many tribal members were returning home after being incarcerated on the San Carlos Apache Reservation as the result of a forced march of hundreds of miles by the United States Cavalry in the winter of 1875, where many died of exposure. This imprisonment at San Carlos in the late 1800s cleared the way for Anglo settlers to move into the Tonto Apache territory – making the Tonto Apache unwelcome in their own homelands.

Prior to 1972, the Tonto Apache were considered “squatters” on the Tonto National Forest lands, a forest which was named after them. At one point they were forcibly evicted and their homes were being bulldozed by the Forest Service. “Getting our reservation set aside in 1972 made us finally feel at home again,” said former leader Chief Melton Campbell at the time; he is now deceased.

By the late 1980s, homes were becoming crowded with the growing tribal population. Three and sometimes four generations were forced to live together, and other members have had to move off the reservation entirely. The tribal council understood this dilemma and put a plan in motion in the early 1990s to acquire additional land, which was not an easy task given the fact that the reservation is surrounded on three sides by Tonto National Forest land.

A land exchange with the Tonto National Forest was the best option for the tribe. So, on its own, the tribe purchased four different parcels of in-holdings in the Tonto, Prescott and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests totaling 405 acres, containing environmentally sensitive riparian areas and one of only two peat bogs in the State of Arizona. The tribe then offered to trade these lands to the Forest Service in exchange for acreage next to the reservation which was equal in value.

It took 15 years of steady commitment, but the tribe completed the land exchange with the Tonto National Forest for 273 acres in 2008, and also purchased another 20 acres, all adjacent to the Tonto Apache Reservation. In 2004, the tribe requested the United States Department of Interior to take these lands into trust, to effectively restore these aboriginal lands to the tribe. By its Notice of Decision on March 5, the BIA determined it would take the lands into trust for the exclusive use and benefit of the Tonto Apache Tribe. No appeals were filed which allowed the completion of the transaction June 1 through the signing of the Warranty Deed by Ivan Smith, chairman of the tribe, to the United States of America, in trust for the tribe.

“This journey has been a long fight. Our population has exploded in the last decade, and we now have a chance for much needed housing for our members. Not only for this generation but for further generations,” Smith said.

While the work to complete the land exchange and to place the lands into trust has come to an end, the work to build 22 tribal homes to meet immediate tribal needs is just beginning. The tribal council has begun planning efforts to site homes and prepare for construction in the near future.

“This means a lot to me and the tribe, because it means that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be able to get homes,” said Casilda Johnson, a tribal elder and former council member. “We used to live in shacks across the way, and then moved onto our current 85 acre reservation. Our newly acquired land is needed.”

“This has been a long process,” said Vivian Burdette, a council member. “This will allow us to bring other tribal members who are living off reservation home and provide housing for them. I am thankful that I am still here to see this happen. We have loved ones that have gone on that did not get to see this. This would not have been possible without God, I give Him all the praise.”

“It’s good to finally reach the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Calvin Johnson, a council member. “This marks a new chapter in the struggles that the Tonto Apaches have had to overcome. I am honored that I played a small part in seeing this happen. Above all, I would like to thank God for making this happen.”