Wendell Chino

Father of Indian Casinos - Apache Leader

Wendell ChinoThe Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation is located in south central New Mexico. Its 720 square miles in the Sacramento Mountains is home to approximately 4,000 Apaches. On this reservation in 1924 ­- the same year that Congress granted American citizenship to all native Americans -- Wendell Chino was born. On the reservation, there were no industries and few jobs. The Apaches lived mostly as they had since the reservation was established in 1873, raising a few crops and receiving supplies from the federal government represented by appointed Indian agents who varied from competent to corrupt.

Only 11 years before the birth of Wendell Chino, his parents had been released from captivity as prisoners of war of the U.S. Army. They were given the choice of settling in Oklahoma or going to the Mescalero Reservation. They chose to locate at Mescalero. Young Chino learned English, then went to a Dutch Reform college in Michigan. After graduation and ordination as a minister, he returned to the reservation.

Chino had an unshakeable vision for his people. He wanted them to move into the modern world, yet preserve their traditions. He quickly became a leader, and at the age of 28, he was elected chairman of the tribal governing committee, the highest elective office on the reservation at that time. Later, the tribal constitution was changed to call for the election of a tribal president. Chino won the first election and was reelected every two years for a total of 17 times. Altogether, he led the tribe for 43 years.

During these years, Chino learned to use the white man's system of laws and politics. He went to court to secure the Mescaleros' rights for land and water and for control of hunting and fishing on the reservation. Chino was well known in Santa Fe and in Washington, DC. His booming voice was persuasive in arguments that won him the backing and respect of men in power.

The tribe had begun working on long-term projects before Chino came into office. But his energy and iron will propelled his people into an economic growth never before experienced by other native Americans. Under his leadership, a ski area was built on the slopes of the 12,000-foot Sierra Blanca mountain. A sawmill and a plant to fabricate metal containers came later. The most ambitious project was an expensive resort, the Inn of the Mountain Gods. In addition to the usual trappings of a first-class resort, the property included a casino. Gambling activity was strictly against the laws of New Mexico, but Chino claimed tribal sovereignty for the Mescalero Reservation. This defiance of state law created a host of imitators and is still being tested in the courts and state legislatures today.

The emphasis on recreation created jobs and built an economic base for the reservation. During its busy season, the Inn of the Mountain Gods employs 355 people. Chino knew he had created an economic model that other tribes would follow. At a meeting of tribal leaders, he was said to have joked, "The Zuni make jewelry, the Navajo make blankets, and the Apache make money."

For those who criticized his ways of governing, Chino was contemptuous. Known for his blunt way of talking, he said, "Wendell Chino doesn't elect himself. If the Apaches didn't like the way I was operating, they would have booted me out a long time ago."

But the majority of Mescalero apparently liked the way he operated. Before Chino's death in 1998, the per person income on the reservation had risen to $16,536 per capita. This was two to three times that of tribal members on other reservations with similar natural resources.

Upon his death, he was praised by whites and Native Americans alike for being an inspiration to other Native American leaders, because he had secured many rights for all the tribes to govern themselves. But, most of all, Wendell Chino showed his fellow tribal leaders how to lift their people out of poverty.

By Joann Mazzio



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