SI Vault
Robert Cantwell
August 04, 1969
Even In Paradise the Apaches of Arizona were merely existing on Income from the sale of cattle and timber. Now they are incorporated and the tourist money rolls in
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August 04, 1969

The Happiest Fishing Ground

Even In Paradise the Apaches of Arizona were merely existing on Income from the sale of cattle and timber. Now they are incorporated and the tourist money rolls in

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At first the place does not strike you as particularly unusual—no better than any other well-kept subdivision of Paradise. The East Fork of the White River forms on the 11,549-foot level of the mountains and falls 5,000 feet in 15 magnificent miles; 26 still, cold lakes are scattered here and there in a million acres of forest; there are 850 campgrounds carpeted with wall-to-wall pine needles; and fishermen, who pay the Apache Indians 75� a day for the privilege (only 50� for each succeeding day if they stay more than one), catch rainbow trout in the lakes or on Diamond Creek or Bog Creek, on North Fork or on the rugged East Fork, where Geronimo used to hide out.

This is the Fort Apache Indian Reservation of east-central Arizona, an undeveloped tract of 1,664,872 acres that can be reached by highway from Phoenix, 185 desert miles away. Back in 1871 the Government put the Apache Indians there—or let them stay there—because there was nothing in the region anyone else wanted. In so doing they confined them in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. After having existed frugally from the sale of cattle and timber for nearly a century, the Apaches have now established a profit-making corporation. White Mountain Recreation Enterprise, wholly owned by the 5,800-member tribe, which last year grossed some $1.5 million from the sale of permits for 408,923 days of fishing and the sale of tackle, food and the necessities of life to campers and fishermen and hunters. The business has just begun to bring returns, and the reservation is so big and so undeveloped that 10 times as many vacationers as will be there this summer can be taken in without crowding.

"We're not dying off," said Nelson Lupe, when I visited him not long ago in the town of Whiteriver. "We're growing." Lupe was the tribal chairman who persuaded the Apaches to set up Recreation Enterprise and let vacationers enjoy life on the reservation. He eased his burly frame out of a battered pickup truck and sat down on the porch of the tribal council building with an air of authority. It was Sunday morning; church bells were ringing; small Indian children, the girls in white dresses and the boys in trim suits, passed by on the path, going to Sunday School. Whiteriver, with a population of 1,500, is the largest community on the reservation. It is outside the forest area, a sprawling collection of government offices, a store, a big new school, a new courthouse and jail, scattered wooden houses and trailers.

Here the tribal council launched the Apaches' enterprise in outdoor recreation. "This was a wonderful adventure," said Lupe. "Let me tell you the beginning of how I got into this. I gained some knowledge working off the reservation during the war. I worked in Nevada on construction of an air base, and from there I went to Morenci, Ariz. to work in a smelter. The manpower shortage was awful; we worked 16 hours a day, six days a week. And then on Sunday, golly, you wanted to get out of that dreary place. We had an old pickup, just like this one here. We used to drive up the mountains above Morenci on the Coronado Trail. When you get on top there, you get beautiful springs, you know, and oak trees and beautiful shade. The kids loved that place. We did that every weekend. Four years I worked there. And I kind of thought about this place. I didn't think about it as outdoor recreation at the time. I just wanted to go to a place where there was a stream, where I could lay down just in the shade somewhere and get a little snack and a picnic and take the kids out there."

Nearly 10 years passed before Lupe had a chance to work out the notion that came to him on his days off at the smelter. Before the war he had served on the tribal council but, when he returned to the reservation after the war, the council's work seemed to him to be futile, and he decided not to stand for reelection. "My wife was in the hospital," he said. "I told her, 'I don't want to run for council any more. We're not getting anywhere.' She said, 'Nelson, come here.' I walked over to her. It was during visiting hours. She said, 'Nelson, I want you to run for council. I insist you run for council. One of these days the people are going to thank you for it.' So I stood for the council again.

"In 1950 they put me in there as chairman. And this was serious to me, right from the beginning." Lupe persuaded the council to make the chairmanship a full-time job and he enlisted the help of the late Silas Davis, an old-line Bureau of Indian Affairs official who had charge of the lookout towers and a crew of rangers to prevent forest fires. Davis loved the country and learned to know the woods intimately in the course of his work. He traveled with Lupe to look over the land and consider money-making projects the tribe could undertake. Davis knew many Arizona sportsmen and arranged for fishing permits for the few fishermen who made their way to the reservation. "But they sold very few permits," Lupe went on. "Most people who came here fished for free. It was just a summer sport for them, and they didn't pay anything to the tribe. It was Sy Davis who kind of pictured the whole thing to me. We'd talk about the streams. We'd drive out, and he'd say, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful, Nelson, to have a campground in here? We could sell fishing licenses and stock the stream with fish, so fishermen can come back here and give us some money in the summertime.' And right then and there, my mind went back to Morenci. That was the thing I was thinking about there."

With its three motels, five service stations, tackle stores, liquor stores, the Apache Flame Tavern, its trailer camp, boat rental business and its 130 employees—and its memorial plaque to Sy Davis at Hawley Lake—Recreation Enterprise has become so successful that few recall its early days. But they were tough. "There was opposition within the tribe, quite a bit," said Lupe. "The oldtimers, you know, they had this feeling about white people. Not trusting them. All the subchiefs were opposed. All the medicine men. The main opponents—let's see, F-1 was alive at the time and C-1. Then there was somebody from Carrizo. He took the place of N-1."

F-1? C-1? N-1? What sort of names were these? "They're just brand names," he explained. During the Indian Wars in the Southwest, when Congress authorized a special force of Indian scouts, Company A was composed of White Mountain Apaches. Army paymasters had trouble spelling such Indian names as Boggynoggy, Gushonay, Dahkoshay, Noshchuggy and the like, so the scouts were identified by a number and letter on identity tags that they carried on cords worn around the neck. Alchesay, the last hereditary chief of the Apaches, became A-1. Indian scouts existed as a special force in the Army from 1866 until 1947 and, as Fort Apache was a cavalry post for more than 50 years, the scouts and former scouts—they received the same pay and allowance as cavalrymen—became prominent figures in tribal affairs. Such wealth as the Apaches had was in cattle, and the descendants of the scouts used the old Army identity numbers for their cattle brands.

"These people, you know, they objected to it," said Lupe. "Very much. They said, 'We been giving the white people a free hand and we been losing our land." They said, 'Our land used to go beyond Springerville, way back behind that white mountain, and the other way the boundary went way back toward Tonto, Camp Verde, Flagstaff, all over that place. Apaches used to roam between Camp Verde and Pleasant Valley. And they went along that river towards where Roosevelt Dam is and back up the Sierra Ancha and on the east side and on the west side.'

" 'We got to forget about this,' I told them. 'Let these people—white people—come to our reservation. We'll start selling fishing permits. We'll start making money from them.' The oldtimers felt that we were going to lose our land, and the white people were going to come in on us and take over our land. I said, 'As long as we develop our land, from corner to corner, we'll have something to hold and something to be proud of and something that we can claim as our own and something that we have done ourselves in developing the resources.' I said, 'This is the only way we can keep up our fence pretty strong.' "

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