Let the Chips Fall

Texas' Kickapoo Indians once lived in squalor under a bridge and worked as migrant laborers. Now things are looking up, thanks to a new Native American tradition: casino gambling.

The dismissal angered Makateonenodua, and in a series of elections that followed, the three council members who opposed Garza were voted out of office by wide margins. But complaints of election irregularities and heavy-handed tactics caused the Bureau of Indian Affairs to refuse to recognize the new tribal council.

Not until February 1999 was the matter resolved when a ruling by a high official in the Interior Department accepted the now dominant Makateonenodua-led faction as the legitimate government. Since then, the chairman and Garza have been firmly in charge, and no one dares challenge them or question their bold agenda.

"I handle everything. I'm the tribal council representative. I represent the owners, the [tribal] government," Garza says. "But I am only a facilitator. They are a very wise people although they have never had education."

Mark Blackwell/San Antonio Express-News

Indeed, agree or disagree with the big plan, few Kickapoo would go back to how things were just 15 years ago. Memories of life under the bridge remain sharp and painful.

"When I was 14, we were living under the bridge and what I remember is the super-cold winters we had," Salazar says. "It didn't matter how high the fire was, it was still cold, and everyone was walking by, and no one gave a damn about us. When we'd walk into a store, smelling like wood smoke, it was like being a homeless person."

There is little nostalgia about life on the migrant circuit either. "We used to work hard up north, from dawn to dusk. I didn't have the slightest idea of what it was to work on the clock. Now we can actually sit down and talk," Salazar says.

During a visit this spring to El Nacimiento, 130 miles from the border, the tribal chairman was asked about the casino and other developments posing a threat to the old ways.

"The tradition, the culture and the religion, they are all going forward very strongly. Our culture is here in Nacimiento, and there is no casino here," Makateonenodua says. "I adore my culture. I don't think about losing it for a thousand million dollars."

Among the Kickapoo's core beliefs is that the practice of their religion protects the entire human race from calamity. During the visit, Makateonenodua spoke to his visitors inside a large oval structure of reed mats.

At his feet, a fire of mesquite logs smoldered, the smoke wafting upward toward a rectangular opening in the roof.

"This is our temple. The fire and the deer are like your Bible," Makateonenodua says. "We're not doing this for the tourists. This is our obligation so the world goes on. The priests tell us the fire must never go out. This is the message, the smoke, and it goes out on the wind, and the wind carries the message."

Makateonenodua scoffs at complaints that Isidro Garza exercises too much power or puts his own interests above the tribe's, as some Kickapoo complain.

"Sure, he's got power, but here is his chief," says Makateonenodua, indicating himself. "I met Garza when he was the city manager of Eagle Pass, and he helped me and my people a lot. He is a good friend, and when he came back to Eagle Pass in 1995, I helped him."

But if Garza is helping the Kickapoo, he is quick to admit that he too has benefited. He left Eagle Pass in the mid-1980s after being fired as city manager for reasons that have never been made public. When he returned in 1995, he bore huge debts from the construction company he operated out of League City, south of Houston. Galveston County records show numerous liens and judgments.

"There was a time when I was possibly a half-million dollars in debt. I owe about $200,000 now," he says.

While he declined to say how much he is paid by the tribe or if he receives a percentage of casino profits, he is quick to sing their praises as generous employers.

"If people are just going to look at this one period of time, and from this say that Isidro is an opportunist, it's incorrect and unfair to our reputation. We were with the tribe when they had nothing," he says of himself and his wife, Marta. "The Kickapoo take care of me, just like I took care of them when there was no one stretching out a hand. They have not forgotten me."

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