Obituary: Wendell Chino

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The Independent Culture
WENDELL CHINO was a hero to American Indians and set out a persuasive philosophy of "red capitalism" that gave Indian tribes a model by which they could regain control of their lands and find a way to greater prosperity. As the longtime president of the Mescalero Apache Nation, he helped to lift his tribe out of abject poverty with a series of entrepreneurial schemes that included a ski resort and one of the first gaming casinos on Indian land.

Chino led the Mescalero for 34 years and gradually won his people a greater degree of self-determination. After years of punishing government policies that ranged from extermination to assimilation, he forced the US authorities to honour the treaties it had made regarding use of land and resources within the Mescalero reservation, which is 200 miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Roy Bernal, Chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council, described Chino as "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 said. "He was truly a modern warrior."

Until the mid-1960s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs oversaw everything from mining to timber to grazing contracts on the Mescalero reservation, home to 4,000 people. As these contracts came up for renewal, Chino allowed them to lapse and instead created timber and cattle companies controlled by the tribe. With his guidance, the Mescalero Apache Nation then built a ski resort, the Inn of the Mountain Gods, a casino, a timber mill and a metal fabrication plant, as well as Indian schools, a hospital and a health centre.

Often described as a "benevolent dictator", Chino dominated Mesca-lero affairs, while he travelled the world as a spokesman for Indian issues and served a term as the president of the National Congress of American Indians. During a court battle over the control of Mescalero Apache natural resources in 1977, he described the problem: "The white man has raped this land and now he wastes the six million acres of Indian land in this state."

The solution, which came to be called "red capitalism", was equally blunt: that Indian people should make decisions about Indian land. At the same time, Chino recognised the need to "participate wholly in the American way".

Believing that, as a nation, Indians had no business negotiating at state level, Chino fought his battles at the federal and even presidential level. He lambasted President Jimmy Carter in 1978 for the his lack of attention to the plight of the American Indian. "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.

Wendell Chino was born on the Mescalero reservation in 1923 and was educated in the Santa Fe Indian School System. He attended Central College in Pella, Iowa, and the Cook Christian Training School in Phoenix. He was an ordained minister in the Dutch Reformed Church and a graduate of Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

A little man with stooped shoulders, two hearing aids and a booming voice, Chino appeared gruff in public but hid a sly sense of humour. He once described the Mescalero's strength this way: Navajos, he said, make rugs, and the Pueblos make pottery. "The Mescaleros, make money."

Chino's positions could also be unpopular. He split with New Mexico Indian leaders last year, refusing to honour a gambling- revenue-sharing agreement with the state and created a split within the Mescalero community when he invited nuclear power companies to bury their radioactive waste on tribal land, a proposal that was ultmately rejected. His critics questioned where the profits from the Mescaleros' successful enterprises went, noting that most tribal members had not seen prosperity.

In an interview with the Albuquerque Journal before winning his 17th term as tribal president last year, Chino downplayed his image as a dictator. "Wendell Chino doesn't elect himself," he said. "If they didn't like the way I was operating, they would have booted me out a long time ago."

Edward Helmore

Wendell Chino, activist and minister of the church: born Mescalero, New Mexico 25 December 1923; married (one son); died Santa Monica, California 4 November 1998.