Vegas, Nev. — The tribe that runs their casino made a rock-bottom offer: We’ll take your land, but not our home.
For Phil, the Cochise Valley’s most renowned and one of the largest ranchers in the U.S., it was a step too far. He had owned the land for five generations.
“They didn’t want any of the ranchers on their land. They always thought we were moving away from them,” Phil says.
A half-century ago, the Interior Department made it clear. If the Mesquite Paiute Sioux Tribe wanted to stay on traditional lands, the government would buy them out and nothing would be left but a sign post. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and the U.S. Constitution give tribes vast and newfound power to govern themselves. But for Phil and other ranchers, the reservation gives them no free pass to leave their land alone.
“My elderly mother could, unfortunately, if it was not for this land, she would be with one of the Indian boarding schools, which weren’t nice places to live,” Phil says.
The tribe takes no responsibility for flooding the valley. Instead, Phil says they’ve added no-trespassing signs and fencing to keep off-road vehicles out of his property. He’s also found a field of camel dung, dumped by locals traveling from the reservation to catch his cattle. He sees this as a war zone.
“Why do they do it? They don’t want us on their land. They’re afraid we’re going to grow and thrive and they’re going to have to pay us a lot of money,” he says.
In 1995, the reservation installed a sign highlighting a beeline from the casino to the Cochise Creek Road. It even went as far as creating new county roads on the reservation, based on the Indian tribes’ new right of way.
“And I said to my uncle, ‘We should sue the government over this, because it’s extremely unfair,’” Bob Lawton, one of the Paiute Indian owners of the casino and a longtime rancher, says.
Now, with the growing opposition, the reservation is working hard to avoid buying lands or selling property. What’s clear, if a rancher and landowner doesn’t agree to sell to the tribe, the government has a back-up plan.
“The reservation, we had talked about that, they would take it by eminent domain,” says Kathleen Lewis, Cochise Indian Tribe president.
The tribe has to go to court and the courts will decide if any property can be taken by eminent domain. It could be decades before that happens.
For ranchers like Phil, he’s losing faith. He says it’s time to hold the government accountable.
“It’s the principle. They believe that they’re right, they don’t have to listen, they don’t have to hear,” he says.
Meantime, Phil says he and his neighbors have endured enough and are prepared to take their fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.