Working toward a resolution

LAWTON, Okla. – The fate of an out-of-state gaming operation hangs in the balance as tribal and federal representatives figure out the Fort Sill Apache’s New Mexico recognition status, an interpretation that could help the tribe establish an off-reservation gaming site.

Records show the tribe was invited last year by New Mexico gaming authorities to join its ranks after the Apaches announced gaming intentions in the state. The 650-member tribe currently operates a paper bingo site near Deming, N.M. that employs around 30.

The Apache Homelands Entertainment Center faces closure by the National Indian Gaming Commission which has issued a Notice of Violation for the bingo site July 21. The tribe also operates a casino within its jurisdiction in Lawton, Okla., the Fort Sill Apache Casino which has Class II and Class III gaming devices.

The violation notice threatens closure of the Akela Flats bingo hall and/or a $25,000 per day fine if the tribe remains open. The tribe has responded that a land determination on the New Mexico site does not fall under the purview of the NIGC but the Department of Interior.

Additionally, the Apaches said that as the successors of the Warm Springs/Chirachua Apache in south central New Mexico, it has gaming eligibility there.

Initially, the Fort Sill Apaches got a short-lived welcome to its Akela Flats site.

New Mexico Indian Gaming Association officials sent tribal chairman Jeff Houser a letter June 16, 2008, inviting the tribe to join the gaming corporation as an auxiliary member months after the Deming site opened. The tribe opened the Fort Sill Apache Homelands Entertainment Center site in February 2008.

The gaming group lists Isleta, Laguna, Okhay Owingeh, Santa Ana, Santa Clara and Tesuque tribes as NMIGA members, all of which operate a casino within the state. NMIGA Chairman Charles Dorame explained the association’s incorporation process in the letter, noting that “It (NMIGA) will have a limited and well-defined mission to protect and promote tribal gaming.”

NMIGA Executive Director Drew Setter sent a letter June 23 to the tribe, saying the earlier invitation letter was sent in error.

Setter said while he was preparing for a NMIGA meeting scheduled for June 26, 2008, an associate misinterpreted a portion of the notes inviting eligible members to join NMIGA as auxiliary members. Invitations were to be reviewed by the association’s counsel before sending them. In this instance, the process did not occur.

“Upon review of NMIGA, Inc. bylaws, I sincerely apologize for this error and regret to inform you that the invitation is being withdrawn at this time pending further review,” Setter wrote.

A copy of the notification withdrawal was sent to all NMIGA members, including each of the members’ governors and Fort Sill officials.

Houser said the issue with the NIGC boils down to off-reservation gaming. Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Larry EchoHawk recently visited off-reservation sites in upstate New York. He has not issued a determination on how he views gaming sites located off a tribe’s reservation area.

On Aug. 21, a federal court judge in the Western District of Oklahoma declined to enforce an earlier judgment it made on the tribe’s recognition status. The Apaches argued that the stipulated NIGC actions served as a final determination because it left the tribe no recourse, tribal attorneys said. Federal District Judge Stephen Friot said the tribe should defer to NIGC’s appeal process.