Tribal official recalls battle to protect Ariz. fort
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An historic Army fort that was the subject of a closely watched Supreme Court case reflects 130 years of changing Indian policy, the White Mountain Apache Tribe's top historic preservationist said on Tuesday.

At a small Washington, D.C., gathering with colleagues, John R. Welch described the Arizona tribe's campaign to protect Fort Apache, a 7,600-acre site famous around the world as a symbol of white-Indian relations and the West. Tribal leaders engaged in "hand-to-hand combat" with Bureau of Indian Affairs officials for years, he said.

"They eventually reached a dead end with an assistant secretary who said you're going to have to sue us," recalled Welch. "The tribe said OK."

So when the nation's highest court, in a narrow 5-4 decision, ruled on March 4 that the federal government has a fiduciary responsibility to maintain the property, Welch was relieved. "I felt vindicated," he said.

But the battle is not quite over. The courts still have to sort out how much money will be needed to repair more than 20 buildings that date as far back as the late 1800s, when the U.S. carved out a portion of the Apache reservation to make way for a military outpost that later inspired Hollywood ("Rin Tin Tin") and a not entirely accurate replica in France.

Robert C. Brauchli, a Tucson attorney who handled the case, estimated the damages would run around $8 million. "That's just to bring it up to [Department of Interior] code," he said in a recent interview. "There's restoration we're talking about. They've actually demolished buildings."

Six years after President Ulysses S. Grant established the White Mountain reservation by executive order in 1871, Fort Apache was created. "They thought it would help [the tribe]," Welch said of the government's thinking at the time.

Although many associate Apache people with warfare due to resistance by Geronimo and other Apache leaders, there was little of that at the fort, according to historical documents. The only reported skirmish was an 1881 attack prompted by the government's arrest of a traditional Apache medicine man, who was killed along with several Army officers.

In the years following, the fort became home to a diverse group of white, African-American, Chinese and Mexican civilians. Numerous structures, including a steam-powered sawmill, granary, bakery, stone quarry and blacksmith shop, were built. By the time it was disbanded in the 1920s, it was one of the largest non-militarized posts.

The Interior took control in 1923 when Congress authorized the establishment of the Theodore Roosevelt School. Most of the first students were Hopi and Navajo children forcibly taken from their families. The BIA constructed dormitories and other buildings.

In 1960, Congress passed a law that directed the Interior to hold the fort in trust for the tribe subject to the department's use and improvement. The language triggered the Supreme Court's favorable ruling.

According to Welch, the buildings were in "pretty good shape" during the 1960s. But as the BIA enrollment declined as other schools opened up, the money started to "dry up," he said, ushering in a long period of neglect.

Still, the tribe recognized the significance of the fort. Preservation efforts began in 1968 and have continued today in hopes of drawing tourists to a reservation where more than half of the land base was destroyed by last summer's Rodeo-Chedeski fire.

The BIA school is still in operation with about 100 students in grades 6 through 8. This year's budget includes $2 million for some repairs. The Bush administration has placed a priority on school maintenance but the Apache tribe has largely been passed over for assistance.

Get the Decision:
Syllabus | Opinion [Souter] | Concurrence [Ginsburg] | Dissent [Thomas]

Decision Below:
White Mountain Apache Tribe v. US, No 00-5044 (Fed Cir. May 16, 2001)

Relevant Laws:
Lands Held in Trust for the White Mountain Apache Tribe (Pub. L. 86-392, 1960)

Relevant Links:
U.S. Supreme Court -
White Mountain Apache Tribe -

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