Will Mescalero Apache Tribe Get Their Land Back?

Courtesy govrelations.nmsu.edu / New Mexico State Capitol Building

New Mexico’s Interim Indian Affairs Committee gets a jump on upcoming legislative session

The New Mexico State Legislature’s 53rd session will commence on Tuesday, January 17 and in the interim the state’s Indian Affairs Committee has endorsed measures that will benefit Native veterans, Native prisoners and the Mescalero Apache Tribe respectively ahead of session.

The Indian Affairs Committee is one of the state’s Interim committee, a designation given to those that do preparatory work between formal sessions. Being endorsed by the committee means the measure has been given consideration by legislators.

The Native American Veterans’ Income Tax Settlement Fund amendment was introduced by Republican Senator John Pinto who introduced the original legislation. In 2008, legislation was passed that fixed a tax problem that had been ongoing for more than 20 years. State income tax had been erroneously deducted from the pay of active duty Native American military personnel who lived on tribal lands. A Settlement Fund of $1 million was created in 2009 to return the money to the veterans, or their heirs.

In the Settlement Fund’s first two years more than 1,000 applicants received payments averaging just over $900. But not everyone who was eligible learned of the fund before the money ran out. The amendment seeks to add $400,000 to the Settlement Fund, and to eliminate the 2012 application deadline, long passed.

Another measure the committee has endorsed was introduced by Representative Debbie Rodella, a Democrat from Espanola, New Mexico, and Executive Committee member of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL). The Federal Criminal Sentencing Disparities Memorial is non-binding in law, and requests that the U.S. Congress remediate disparities between federal and state criminal sentencing that disproportionately punish Native Americans.

“This is an important issue that needs to be looked at and addressed in the name of fairness, because it disproportionately impacts Native Americans and people of color,” Rodella told ICMN.

The third measure, Transfer of Lincoln National Forest Land to the Department of the Interior Memorial, is being brought forward by Republican Senator Cliff R. Pirtle, whose district includes Mescalero Apache lands.

Since 1963, the Mescalero Apache Tribe has owned and operated Ski Apache, a ski resort in which the tribe has invested over $20 million dollars in infrastructure. The 860 acres upon which the resort is situated lie beyond the reservation border and are currently under the aegis of the National Forest Service. For over half a century the Mescalero Apache Tribe has been paying an annual lease fee which is calculated as a percentage of revenues generated by Ski Apache, often in the mid six-figures.

The Memorial requests that the U.S. Congress enact legislation that would transfer this acreage from the control of the National Forest Service to the Department of the Interior to be held in trust for the Mescalero Apache Tribe. Referencing the tribe’s substantial and ongoing financial investment, and its excellent stewardship of the forest throughout its lands, the draft Memorial also emphasizes the sacredness of Sierra Blanca mountain as central to Apache creation beliefs as well as the surrounding area where many plants and biological materials used in ceremonies are found.

“Given the spiritual ties to the land and the tribe’s enduring commitments it is time to bring the land under closer internal control,” Mescalero Apache Tribe president Danny H. Breuninger told ICMN.

“We’ll continue to be good neighbors to residents in Lincoln and Otero counties,” he said. “We’ve enhanced Ski Apache which is an attraction for the whole area, recently adding mountain bike trails and a zip-line.”

Ski Apache employs more than 350 people in season and contributes millions of dollars to the local economy.

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