Let the Chips Fall

Bumping along rutted caliche roads used nightly by prowling U.S. Border Patrol agents near the South Texas town of Eagle Pass, Isidro Garza sketches in the contours of the brave new world of the Kickapoo Indians.

Below, on the brushy bank of the Rio Grande, an 18-hole golf course is taking shape. On the high flat ground above, a jet landing strip will be built among the pecan trees for junketing high rollers. Nearby, on the tribe's small reservation, the concrete and steel infrastructure of a new 100,000-square-foot casino and 152-room hotel complex is already rising.

A well-known golfer has been invited to design the course. "We had Lee Trevino visit last week. He's very enthused about the project. He likes the story behind the Kickapoo," Garza says. And this $30 million expansion project may be just the beginning. Two more phases are on the books if the first succeeds in drawing the deep-pocket swells to Maverick County.

"Ten years from now, I expect to have 1,000 hotel rooms and a half-million square feet of casino space. We expect to have large conventions coming through, to be on the PGA Tour and have 25,000 visitors a week," he says.

Garza, a former city manager of Eagle Pass, handles all business affairs of the Texas Kickapoo, a peripatetic 500-member tribe that has long been a downtrodden historical oddity. If his grandiose plans are realized, a destination gambling resort will rise beside the Rio Grande, and the Kickapoo will become a big player in South Texas.

"It's all about money and politics," says Garza, who knows a little about each, having taken his lumps in both the financial and political arenas. Last fall he sought to unseat U.S. Representative Henry Bonilla, who represents the 23rd Congressional District. Garza was defeated by wide margin but carried Maverick County.

After being so long on the bottom, Garza believes the Kickapoo's time has finally come.

"Fifteen years ago, they were landless. They were perceived as squatters underneath the international bridge. They had one water spigot and no toilet facilities. No youngsters were going to school. They were dying on the doorsteps of hospitals," he says.

But they were also Indians, which in the United States brings its own special curses and blessings. The Kickapoo eventually gained federal recognition as a tribe and then used donated funds to buy a 119-acre reservation south of town.

Taking advantage of the peculiar status of Indian land, the Kickapoo opened a small "mom and pop" casino in 1996 on a corner of their reservation.

The Tiguas in El Paso operate the only other casino in Texas. Now snowbirds and low rollers from San Antonio, Laredo and Mexico motor through Eagle Pass down the "Lucky Eagle Trail" to play bingo, card games and "pull-tab" slots.

But for its new casino, the tribe wants to offer Las Vegas-style "Class III" gambling including conventional slots. To do so, it will need the approval of Texas Governor Rick Perry.

The tribe has hired San Antonio lawyer Roy Barrera Jr. to persuade Perry to see things from the Kickapoo's point of view.

"I really hope a plan will be presented to the governor that will answer all questions about the propriety of a Class III gambling license," says Barrera, a former San Antonio judge and a Hispanic Republican years before it was politically fashionable. "We need so badly something to bring about change on the border. It would be a great benefit to the citizens of Maverick County."

Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a less likely venue for a posh gaming house than here. Maverick County has long suffered from poverty and a persistent reputation for backwardness.

Local chamber officials are thus drooling about the Kickapoo's plans. "We're very excited," director Sandra Martinez says. "Since the opening of the casino, requests for information received by the chamber have tripled. We're just waiting for the new casino to open. It's going to be a mega-project," she said.

Others are less enthusiastic.

"It's just changing the atmosphere here. This is a very poor community, and when you combine gambling with poverty, it's not what I would have envisioned as the way for the community to develop," says one county official who asked not to be named.

Kickapoo now hold about a third of the 240 casino jobs, but the tribe is attracting significant local talent. Among the nontribal members are a former local banker, a former county commissioner and a well-connected customs broker.

"The only time we hire Chicanos or whites is when we cannot find a Kickapoo for the job. The only ones who aren't working are the ones who don't want to work," says tribal chairman Makateonenodua, also known as Raul Garza.

Isidro Garza, no relation to Makateonenodua, says the casino nets between $3 million and $4 million annually. Long landless in the United States, the Kickapoo are using some of the earnings to buy property. First they spent $3 million on a 9,000-acre ranch in nearby Kinney County, where tribal members hunt white-tailed deer, essential to Kickapoo religious ceremonies. Late last year, the tribe spent $2 million on a 770-acre pecan orchard adjacent to the reservation. Here they plan to build their golf course and airstrip for their clients.

The tribe also plans to open its own school in which tribe members will teach Kickapoo children their own culture and language. Classes are expected to begin this fall.

But the Kickapoo's dramatic change of fortune has not come without a price. Five years ago, Isidro Garza was at the center of a bitter tribal split over gambling and his role in tribal affairs.

"It drove a deep wedge into these people who had previously been a true tribe, totally united," says Sandra Hansen, tribal attorney from 1989 until late 1995. "I never heard a Kickapoo say a bad word about another Kickapoo before 1995. You never saw them be disrespectful to one another. You never saw them be anything but courteous and jovial, but almost minutes after Isidro Garza appeared on the scene, that vanished."

Garza dismisses Hansen's complaints and says "outsiders" stirred up the conflict.

"All I can say is the wishes of the tribe were to not continue to work with Sandy Hansen. The wishes of the tribe were to work with Isidro Garza," he says.

And to some Kickapoo, Garza is a dynamic and savvy entrepreneur who will bring them political clout and financial independence. These Kickapoo back his aggressive development plan.

"There was a lot of internal conflict, but we've always had conflict, and not everyone is going to root for the team in power," says Steve Salazar, son of a tribal council member. "For the most part, things are being done for the welfare of the tribe, and I think 90 percent of the people agree with it."

But to others, Garza is a Rasputin-like figure who, in 1995 returned to Eagle Pass, down and out, and parlayed his old friendship with the tribal chairman into a role of unchallenged power.

"A lot of people aren't happy, but what can they do?" asks another Kickapoo, who asked not to be named. "There is a lot of fear, because Isidro is the boss here and he's Mexican, not Kickapoo. If someone doesn't agree with him, they will lose their job. The work is the main thing."

But no matter what the future holds, it will be almost incidental to what the Kickapoo have overcome since their first encounters with whites almost four centuries ago.

"Almost from the beginning of European contact, this tribe exhibited a remarkably independent spirit and a studied hostility toward acculturation," wrote Arrell M. Gibson, a specialist on American Indian history. "They refused to accept the economic, political and religious doctrines which the French, the British and later the Americans sought to impose."

The Kickapoo speak an Algonquian language that bespeaks their ancestral roots in the Great Lakes region, where in the early 17th century they encountered their first whites, French fur traders.

After the French came the British, and then the Americans, each initially seeking alliances and treaties with the indigenous tribes and later encroaching upon their homelands.

"First we gave them food, buffalo and antelope. Then they asked for land. Then they tried to throw us out and brought more people and more people," Makateonenodua says.

Fighting, resisting and negotiating but never submitting, the Kickapoo moved ahead of the whites, drifting south and west, from the Great Lakes toward the Great Plains, ending up halfway across the continent. Although some remained behind in Oklahoma and Kansas as the tribe moved westward, another group, which refused to accept forced settlement, kept ahead of the whites.

In the early 1800s, these Kickapoo became part of the volatile mix of what would soon become independent Texas, and from here, they later made the dramatic move that saved them.

In the Texas territory, whites and Indians clashed repeatedly. On October 8, 1838, a surveying party of 25 whites encountered a band of 300 Kickapoo, Cherokee and Delaware warriors. In the clash known as the Battle Creek Fight, 18 of the whites were killed.

After further battles, most of the Kickapoo fled deep into Mexico, using it as a base for raids against Texas. They also served the Mexicans as a formidable buffer against raiding Comanche and Apache. In Mexico, the Kickapoo found an ally in President Benito Juarez, himself a full-blooded Oaxacan Indian, who granted the tribe 17,000 acres in the Sierra Madre.

The site at the headwaters of the Sabinas River became known as "El Nacimiento," or the birthplace. For the last century and a half, it has been the Kickapoo's spiritual homeland. To this day, all religious ceremonies are held there.

Conflict between the Kickapoo and Americans continued until 1873, when U.S. cavalry attacked an encampment at El Remolino, Mexico, while Kickapoo warriors were away. The captive women and children were taken back to Kansas and held as hostages to force the rest of the tribe to surrender, but most stayed behind in El Nacimiento.

The Kickapoo have no written language, but their complex oral history and strong sense of nationhood are passed down, generation to generation. Also handed down is perhaps their most precious tribal possession, a large coinlike medallion, dated 1789. It was shown recently to several Americans invited to El Nacimiento.

On one face the medallion bears the distinctive profile of George Washington. The other side shows clasped hands, crossed pipes and bears the words "Friendship" and "The Pipe of Peace." Over more than two centuries, it has been cherished by Kickapoo holy men and kept from outsiders. To the Kickapoo, it represents proof of the tribe's nation status and its special relationship with the United States.

"It is, in essence, the cornerstone of the tribe's relationship with the Americans. Whoever lays eyes on this medal recognizes the Kickapoo have been given their place in this country by George Washington, and whatever their needs, they will be met," says Makateonenodua. "It's a commitment, government to government. The whole tribe knows about the medal and respects it."

But in the centuries after its issue, the medallion has held little currency, and until a brutal drought hit northern Mexico in the late 1940s, forcing the Kickapoo to come north again, the tribe avoided modern American culture. Their midcentury reappearance in Eagle Pass triggered a series of articles about the long-lost "Stone Age Indian tribe." To survive, the Kickapoo began following the migrant circuit each summer and returning to Mexico each fall.

Their long isolation there had both protected them and left them vulnerable, says Eric Fredlund, an Austin anthropologist who worked with the Kickapoo during the 1990s.

"Their tribal integrity was preserved. They were not on American reservations or in Indian schools. They did not suffer the benevolence of the U.S. government. They had kept to themselves until they fell on very hard times," he says. "They had disappeared into Mexico for 100 years, and when they came back across the border, they were in the same place other tribes would have been in 1850. They were in a very large sense unprepared for life in the United States in the latter part of the 20th century."

The Kickapoo were especially susceptible to alcohol and inhalant abuse. And during their seasonal stopovers in Eagle Pass, they lived in wretched conditions underneath the international bridge. Their floodplain settlement was seen as a municipal eyesore and a public health nuisance. Ultimately, their plight drew the attention of lawyers from the Native American Rights Fund who helped them obtain tribal status in 1983.

They also received help from church groups in raising money to buy land. Among their closest allies was Presbyterian minister Jim McLeod, who worked with the tribe from 1980 to 1988. McLeod says nothing he heard then from the Kickapoo indicated they would be planning a huge gambling complex to be run by outsiders a little more than a decade later.

"Back then they told me the biggest problem in their history had been white people and outsiders in general, and they were very opposed to gambling," he says.

In 1986, the Kickapoo purchased their reservation site seven miles down river from Eagle Pass. A decade later, they opened their casino.

"They were a minority within a minority, living in the harshest of conditions. The general opinion was they were paint-sniffers, drunks and lazy," recalls Julio Frausto, tribal administrator from 1990 to 1995. "My greatest thing was I wanted to break them of the migratory cycle. If you do, kids stay in school. You get them educated. I was a migrant myself, but my parents never took me out of school."

It was the white man's vice, gambling, that broke the migrant cycle. Within a few years of the casino's 1996 opening, few if any Kickapoo went north to work the crops. Most had also moved into permanent housing on the reservation.

"I saw my people below the bridge. The dirt from the bridge would fall on my plate as I ate. I lived in those cardboard huts without land and suffered a lot," recalls Makateonenodua, the tribal chairman. "The big change came when the casino opened. We didn't have to go anymore to Wyoming, Montana and Colorado to work the crops. Now we all work. We can go to school. It's much better."

But the change has not come without a price.

The first casualty of the Kickapoo's new way of life was tribal harmony. Some Kickapoo also miss the unhurried pace of a life that is impossible in a 9 to 5 world. Others fear increased exposure to modern ways will erode Kickapoo religion and culture.

"Obviously it's affecting our culture and the way we look at things now," says one Kickapoo who asked not to be named. "We were isolated when we lived under the bridge. We didn't have much outside contact. Now days, everyone is pretty much mainstream, you might say, and we're doing a lot of things we didn't used to do."

The downside of regular jobs is loss of mobility and freedom, he says. "The majority of the people are working now. It's like keeping up with the Joneses. 'Hey, you've got a new car. We want a new car,' and in order to do that, you have to finance it, and in order to do that, you have to keep working. In the short run, I don't think it's affecting us that much, but in the long run it will. Traditionally, I think it's a bad thing. The majority of the children are now speaking English first instead of Kickapoo, which is the way I grew up."

The critical spark that split the tribe came in late 1996, when three of the five tribal council members voted to fire Isidro Garza as the tribe's gambling representative.

"He excluded us from meetings with government officials and the tribe's gaming partner; he made empty promises that were never fulfilled; he defaulted on other contracts that he made with the tribe or with the tribe's gaming enterprise; and he billed the tribe for unreasonable expenses," read a sworn affidavit from one of the three council members, Jose Hernandez Sr., who died this spring.

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."

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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