Wendell Chino (1923–1998) was a nationally recognized Native American leader. For most of his life he served as the president of the Mescalero Apache Nation. During his tenure he raised his tribe from poverty and helped it become one of the most prosperous in American history.
As an advocate of American Indian rights and tribal sovereignty, Wendell Chino was one of the most innovative and influential Native American leaders. Advancing the philosophy of "red capitalism," he encouraged tribes to regain control of their lands and attain economic freedom. Further, through his example Chino provided tribes with a practical template for self-governance and business management.
Chino, the son of Sam Chino, was born on December 25, 1923, on the Mescalero reservation in New Mexico. The year after his birth, the U.S. Congress granted American citizenship to all Native Americans.
Eleven years before Chino's birth, his parents were freed by the U.S Army after they had been incarcerated as prisoners of war. Upon their release they were afforded two options: They could either move to Oklahoma or to New Mexico, where they could settle on the Mescalero Reservation, located two hundred miles south of Albuquerque. The Chinos chose the New Mexico reservation, an area of land that included 720 square miles nestled in the Sacramento Mountains, in the south central part of the state. The reservation had been established in 1873 and provided a home for approximately 4,000 Apaches.
By the time Chino was born, little had changed on the reservation in terms of the Apaches' lifestyle. Tribal members subsisted on a few farm crops and depended upon supplies from the U.S. government. Further, the reservation housed no form of industry, and job opportunities for the inhabitants were almost non-existent. When he became an adult, Chino would substantially improve the prospects for reservation inhabitants.
Little is known about the early life of the future tribal leader beyond his educational experience. He attended the Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico and, later, Central College in Pella, Iowa, and the Cook Christian School in Phoenix, Arizona. In 1951 he graduated from Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. That same year he was ordained as a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. After ordination he returned to the reservation.
Became Tribal Leader
In 1955, when he was only 28 years old, Chino was elected chairman of the Mescalero tribal governing committee, the reservation's highest elective office. He held that post until 1965, when the tribe changed its constitution and adopted a council form of government that would be headed by a president. Chino easily won the first presidential election and was subsequently re-elected 16 consecutive times, serving in that role until he died in 1998.
In all, he served as president for 43 years. Though he was often described as iron-fisted and autocratic, he proved to be an innovative leader who would successfully develop and diversify his tribe's business pursuits. Intent on securing tribal sovereignty, he helped preserve his people's heritage and at the same time led the tribe into the twentieth century. During his presidency he would advance the notion of "red capitalism," which essentially meant that Native Americans should make their own decisions regarding their tribal lands and business affairs. At once benevolent and brash, charismatic and controversial, he often worked the U.S. legal system to force the government to honor the treaties it had established with Indian nations. Chino launched his arguments with his characteristically loud and commanding voice, and his demeanor and approach gained him both friends and enemies among the highly placed politicians in New Mexico and Washington, D.C.
Helped Develop Reservation Businesses
Chino first advanced his agenda by taking advantage of the expiring contracts with the Bureau of Indian Affairs that covered the reservation's natural resources. Until the mid-1960s (the period when Chino became tribal president), the Bureau managed all resources including mining, timber, water use, and grazing rights. Instead of renewing the contracts, Chino allowed them to lapse. When the contracts ran their course, he was then able to establish lumber production and cattle companies that the tribe could manage. Justifying his actions during a 1977 court case involving control of Mescalero natural resources, Chino stated, "The white man has raped this land and now he wastes six million acres of Indian land use in this state."
Chino often took his fights straight to the federal level. In the process he strongly criticized then-President Jimmy Carter. "If Carter has time enough to worry about human rights in Latin America and poverty in Africa, he should find some time to visit American Indians," he said in 1978.
In working to achieve his vision of "red capitalism," Chino helped provide his people with a level of economic growth never before experienced by any other Native American tribe. Essentially, the reservation became a small business empire. In addition to business enterprises, Chino also helped established schools, a hospital, and a health center.
Established Resort and Casino
At the Mescalero reservation, Chino's most ambitious and profitable project involved the creation of a ski resort, called the Inn of the Mountain Gods, a recreational facility located in the 12,000-foot Sierra Blanca Mountain. The resort, which was built in 1975, not only generated steady income; it also provided employment for reservation dwellers.
The 250-room resort included a championship caliber golf course, the first tribal-owned course in the United States. When Chino first suggested the idea, fellow tribe members were taken aback, as they were completely unfamiliar with the sport. Indeed, even Chino had never played golf. Nevertheless, he went ahead with the project, transforming farmland and picturesque terrain into a 100-acre course within the rocky hillsides, along creeks, and adjacent to Lake Mescalero. The course proved an immediate success. Moreover, it was a pioneering endeavor. Other tribes followed suit. In subsequent years more than 50 tribal-owned golf courses would emerge in 17 states, from the American Southwest to the upper Midwest.
Later the Mescalero resort property housed a casino, even though New Mexico had outlawed gambling. Chino circumvented this legal technicality by claiming tribal sovereignty for the reservation. The casino proved as trend setting as the golf course, and other reservations followed Chino's entrepreneurial and economic lead. About his efforts toward tribal economic self-sufficiency, Chino once reportedly joked that "The Zuni make jewelry, the Navajo make blankets, and the Apache make money."
Because of his leadership abilities and accomplishments, Chino gained national recognition and became a spokesman for Indian issues, even before he established the resort. In 1968 he was a member of the U.S. delegation to the Sixth Inter-American Indian Congress, held at Pátzcuaro, Mexico. That same year he was appointed chairman of the New Mexico Commission of Indian Affairs. He also served as president of the National Congress of American Indians and was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the National Council on Indian Opportunity, which had been established to foster Native American participation in U.S. government decisions concerning Indian policies.
During his career, Chino was sometimes described as a "benevolent dictator." He often generated controversy, as when he strongly opposed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, a revenue-sharing piece of regulation. The Act, Chino believed, restricted his tribe's sovereignty. His argument was that it attempted to regulate an activity that was being carried out on the reservation's domain. When the Act was eventually passed, Chino and other tribal leaders argued against its constitutionality in court. When Chino refused to pay, he alienated other New Mexico tribal leaders.
In a move that was even more controversial, Chino applied to the Department of Energy (DOE) for a grant to study the feasibility of building a Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) site to house nuclear waste on the reservation. In October of 1991, the DOE approved a $100,000 grant application to study the possibility of storing spent nuclear fuel rods that were stored on power plant sites. The MRS site on the Mescalero reservation would be a temporary facility, intended to exist for about 40 years until a permanent site could be built elsewhere. Chino predicted that the temporary site would earn the tribe $250 million during the 40-year storage, and that the arrangement would raise his tribe's living standard and increase its economic autonomy. However, he faced opposition from his tribe and the state of New Mexico, as well as from environmentalists. The feasibility study was conducted from 1991 to 1993. Ultimately the federal government withdrew the grant program in 1993 due to the escalating pressure.
But that did not end the controversy. After the withdrawal of the grant, the Mescalero Apache Tribal Council changed its tack and began working directly with 33 nuclear power plant officials. In 1994 the Council signed a nuclear waste storage agreement with Northern States Power, a Minnesota utility, to negotiate the construction of a private nuclear waste storage facility on the reservation. This outraged many tribal members who were not aware that negotiations had taken place. Despite the controversy, and certain that he had the requisite support, Chino put the matter to a vote. In a referendum held in January of 2005, the proposition was defeated by a vote of 490-362. When Chino demanded another vote, the proposition succeeded by a vote of 593-372. However, in April of 1996, negotiations between the tribe and the power plant officials broke down when the parties failed to reach an understanding on several critical issues.
As a result of the whole affair, questions arose regarding Chino's integrity. It was learned that he had accepted gifts from the companies involved in the negotiations. To some, this reeked of bribery. Suspicions were also raised regarding the reliability of the Mescalero voting system. Vote counting was conducted behind closed doors by a tribal election board comprised of members selected by Chino. Other irregularities were perceived, including a lack of financial accounting and favoritism.
Eventually, Chino's critics started to question where the Mescalero business profits went, as they pointed out that many tribal members had not enjoyed any increased prosperity. Chino had a characteristically bold response to these critics. In a 1997 interview with the Albuquerque Journal, conducted right before he was elected to his 17th term as tribal president, he said, "Wendell Chino doesn't elect himself. If they didn't like the way I was operating, they would have booted me out a long time ago."
He made a strong point. Also in his favor was the fact that during his presidency, his tribe had risen from poverty to become a viable economic player. Further, the reservation's personal per capita income increased to $16,536 during his tenure. That figure was two to three times that of Native Americans on other reservations that possessed equivalent natural resources.
Suffered Fatal Heart Attack
Later in his life Chino carried himself with stooping shoulders and needed two hearing aids. However, he maintained his gruff and blunt disposition, which was coupled and softened with a sly sense of humor. In this way he remained a vibrant, impressive figure. His sudden death on November 4, 1998, sent out shock waves throughout the Mescalero nation and across the country.
Chino died in Santa Monica, California. According to reports, he suffered a heart attack while exercising on a treadmill at a Pritikin Longevity Center. He was taken to an emergency room at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, where he was revived. However, after he was transferred to the hospital's critical care unit he suffered a second heart attack and died. He was 74 years old.
His body was returned to New Mexico, and the funeral was held at the Mescalero Community Center. He was buried at the Mescalero Cemetery.
After his death he was immediately praised as an inspiration to other Native Americans, due to the leadership that elevated his own tribe from poverty and provided an example for other tribes. Of Chino, Roy Bernal, Chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council, commented that he was "a Martin Luther King or a Malcolm X of Indian country. He took stances that affected Indians not only on his reservation, but all over the country. He was truly a modern warrior."
The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Volume 5: 1997–1999, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2002.
Independent (London, England), November 30, 1998.
New Mexico Business Journal, October 1992.
New York Times, March 17, 2006.
"Wendell Chino: Father of Indian Casinos and Apache Leader," DesertUSA, http://www.desertusa.com/mag00/jan/papr/chino.html (December 28, 2006).
"Wendell Chino, Mescalero Apache Leader," First Nations: issues of consequence, http://www.dickshovel.com/elders.html (December 28, 2006).