FORT APACHE, Ariz. - A stroll along Officers Row of this decaying Army post conjures up images of John Wayne, horse soldiers and Indian bands led by Geronimo.
Made famous by dime novels and Western movies, Fort Apache is synonymous with the Old West. From 1870 until it was decommissioned in 1922, the fort was a powerful symbol of the federal government's military might in Indian country. The fort offered salvation to white settlers fearful of Indian attacks, but to the native people it was the home of an occupying army bent on subjugating them.
In early March, however, a U.S. Supreme Court decision turned the old fort into a victory symbol for the White Mountain Apaches and the rest of the nation's 550 Indian tribes.
The high court ruled 5-4 that the Apaches had the right to sue the U.S. government for millions of dollars for failing to properly maintain the fort, which sits on Indian land. Once the fort is refurbished, the tribe wants to turn it into a tourist attraction, augmenting an Indian cultural museum that has been operating at the site since 1969.
Today, little remains intact from Fort Apache's storied past. The parade ground where soldiers drilled has long faded. Only one of the fort's four stables still stands, and many other buildings are vacant and boarded. The log cabin once occupied by legendary Indian fighter Lt. Col. George Crook is one of the few buildings open to the public.
Dallas Massey Sr., the chairman of the White Mountain Apache tribe, said the high court's decision upheld an important concept of Indian law - the government's promise to serve as the guardian of tribes after they moved to reservations.
"The prayers of our people and of Indian people across this land have been answered in the court's opinion, which reaffirms this nation's longstanding fiduciary relationship with Indian tribes," Massey said.
The tribe's reservation is 200 miles northeast of Phoenix. It has a casino, but its location is too remote to draw heavy action from gamblers. Logging is the tribe's principal source of income, but last summer two fires devastated 276,000 acres of timberland on the sprawling reservation. The White Mountain Apaches also operate a ski area and a thriving big-game hunting business. Hunters, who are exempt from state hunting and fishing regulations on tribal land, pay from $15,000 to $19,500 apiece to bag trophy elk.
The Interior Department has held the fort in trust for the tribe since 1960. In 1999, the tribe filed a lawsuit accusing the government of breaching its "fiduciary duty to maintain, protect, repair and preserve" the fort, which was designated as a historic district in 1976. The tribe wants the government to pay $14 million for the repairs.
The Court of Federal Claims in Washington threw out the case, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in favor of the White Mountain Apaches. The Bush administration appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that if the government lost, it would lead to an avalanche of litigation from tribes.
Many treaties called for the Indians to cede their ancestral land and to move to reservations, where the land is held in trust by the federal government. In exchange, the government promised to protect the tribes' safety and quality of life.
Under the system, tribes are quasi-sovereign wards of the "Great Father," the federal government, which provides them with health, education, loan and housing benefits. Although these programs exclude non-Indians, they do not violate laws against racial discrimination.
While Indians are a separate racial group, they have a special legal status because the federal government treats tribes as political groups.
A 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Morton vs. Mancari, illustrates this point.
The case arose after non-Indians at the Bureau of Indian Affairs challenged the constitutionality of a federal law that gave employment preference to Indians. In a unanimous decision, the high court ruled that Indians are "separate people with their own ... institutions" and Congress has the power to treat them differently than non-Indians.
During arguments before the high court in December, Gregory G. Garre, an assistant to the U.S. solicitor general, said historic preservation was not the goal in 1960 when Congress enacted legislation putting the fort in trust. Garre said the legislation gave the interior secretary the right to operate the fort for governmental purposes.
"The Department of the Interior has spent more than $3 million over the past decade or 15 years on repair and maintenance projects at the fort," Garre said, adding: "It's also true that the tribe itself has engaged in historic restoration efforts at the fort with the support of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of the Interior and with the assistance of private, state and even, in some cases, federal tax dollars."