The Wendell Chino papers – Mescalero Apache Leader, New Mexico Legend

While NMSU Archives and Special Collections (ASC) has long held significant collections of political content, particularly in the Rio Grande Historical Collections, the Library’s manuscript repository, the Political Collections unit was not created until 2008.  Nearly 2,000 linear feet of records from Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-NM) were donated then and the university hired a political collections archivist to care for the records.

Wendell Chino, c.1965

Wendell Chino, c.1965

ASC’s collection development policy directs the unit to collect archival material and promote academic inquiry into New Mexico’s political history, structure, and policymaking processes.  The collection material dates from New Mexico’s early Territorial period through the present, with the bulk of the holdings post-statehood and comes from local, state and federal-level politicians and appointees, judges, political advocacy organizations and special interest groups, law and lobbying firms, and journalists. These archival collections provide documentation of New Mexican issues that are of state, regional, and national importance, such as Native American sovereignty, natural resource extraction, agriculture and ranching, water rights and supply, border trade and security, immigration, nuclear research and development, and environmental protection.

NMSU is open to obtaining the records of officials of the Pueblos, Tribes, and Nations in New Mexico but will do so in consultation with the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials, a set of guidelines created in 2007, and endorsed by the Society of American Archivists and the Society of Southwest Archivists.  These protocols outline “best practices for the culturally responsive care of American Indian archival collections held in non-tribal repositories.”

The papers of Wendell Chino, who served as tribal chair and president of the Mescalero Apache Tribe (MAT) in southern New Mexico for more than 43 years, are now part of ASC’s political papers.  These papers offer a significant insider’s view of Apache and American Indian politics during a crucial period of change.  Chino proved to be both innovative and autocratic as he brought an economic revival to the reservation through timber, cattle, and recreation ventures, and more controversially, via gaming and nuclear disposal initiatives.

Mark Chino, the son of Wendell and Patricia Chino, donated the papers to NMSU in early 2017 after negotiations with Department Head Dennis Daily.  Mark is an NMSU alumnus, retired criminal investigator, and a former president of MAT.  An initial review of the papers took place on February 10, 2017 in Mescalero, New Mexico.  The papers were housed in a storage unit and placed in various boxes, plastic totes, and trunks. On April 26, the collection was formally picked-up by ASC staff via a rented truck.  My colleagues Dennis Daily, Adam Heien, and Matt Friedberg sorted through and often rehoused the material before transfer to NMSU.  The containers did have some labelled folders and a loose arrangement structure, but no clear discernable series level original order.  Unfortunately, there was some water, mold, and pest damage, including mouse droppings.  In the end, a small portion of the material proved unsalvageable.

 

The initial inventory created by my colleagues listed 93 boxes and gave a general description of the material found in each box.  The material was typical of most 20th century records and included: correspondence; speeches; reports; research files; calendars and appointment books; MAT minutes, newsletters, and business records; newspaper clippings and magazine articles; photographs and AV recordings; photo albums and scrapbooks; and memorabilia and published books.  As of December 2020, I am still working on arranging and describing the collection.  I had hoped to have that task finished by year’s end, but the pandemic had other ideas.

Archivists traditionally organize records in series order to allow for ease of access by researchers.  We rely on the organization found within the collection as initiated by the records creator – the principle of original order, a foundational theory of archival practice. However, some collections have little overall order to them or have lost their arrangement after being moved from place to place – both scenarios likely affected the Chino papers.  I worked to impose order to the collection, a sometimes tedious task as you continually organize and refine.  In general, I looked for the organic structure of Chino’s work as I reviewed the papers and allowed them to tell me how it should be best arranged; while in the end it is still my best possible guess, it is better than a daunting pile of papers that would leave any researcher struggling on where to begin.  An initial pass through the 93 boxes produced the following series & subseries arrangement:

  • Personal
  • Correspondence
  • National Organizations
  • Mescalero Apache Tribe
    • Governance
    • Bureau of Indian Affairs/Department of the Interior
    • State of New Mexico
    • Media Coverage
    • Inn of the Mountain Gods
    • Issues
      • Indigenous Rights
      • Economic Development & Employment
      • Gaming
      • Nuclear Waste
      • Timber & Livestock
      • Water Rights
      • Education
      • Social Issues
    • Photographs and AV Material

 

Wendell was born December 25, 1923 on the MAT reservation, he was educated at the Santa Fe Indian School and attended Central College in Iowa and the Cook Christian Training School in Phoenix, before graduating in 1951 from the Western Theological Seminary in Michigan where he was ordained a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church.  He returned to Mescalero in 1951 and four years later at 28 was elected chair of the MAT governing committee, and in 1965 the position was changed to president – a position he held until 1998, when at 74 years old he passed.  Much of the personal material relates to his early religious training, letters/cards from his family, and records of his world travels and vacations.  The personal correspondence has large gaps in the timeline, with the bulk from the 1970s – 1990s.

Chino (right) with BIA and National Forest officials, c.1960

Chino (right) with BIA and National Forest officials, c.1960

Chino made a name for himself as a strong advocate of indigenous autonomy and greater self-determination.  He challenged state and federal policies – particularly those of the U.S. Department of the Interior and its Indian Affairs – wherein he demanded that treaties be honor, particularly when it came to tribal development of their land and resources.  He developed economic policies, which he described as “red capitalism.” Chino presided over both the National Tribal Chairmen’s Association (NTCA) and National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), as well as numerous other national and regional committees that took him across the country as an invited speaker where he powerfully argued for the rights of the Apache and other native peoples.  The National Organizations series includes newsletters, minute records, correspondence, and conference proceedings of the various organizations in which he served and participated.

The bulk to the Chino papers focus on the MAT – as president for 43 years, one can imagine there is a rich treasure trove of information about the social and economic transformation of the tribe, a truly amazing level of growth rarely before experienced by any other Native American tribe.  This series documents the ongoing power struggle with the federal and state governments, regarding the autonomy of the tribe to determine its own path – spectacularly documented in particular over issues of gaming and temporary nuclear waste storage.  The series and subseries of the MAT include sensitive records of tribal enrollment, tribal courts, and policy machinations.  This material for the time being will be restricted until further consultation with the tribe as suggested by the Protocols.

Mescalero Apache Tribe sign, August 1974

Mescalero Apache Tribe sign, August 1974

“Red capitalism” as practiced by Chino stipulated that indigenous people should make their own decisions regarding their tribal lands and business affairs and not allow federal agencies to dictate the terms of use of tribal natural and human resources.  In the 1960s, Chino allowed numerous federally negotiated leases to expire – these were contracts regarding mining, timber, grazing, and water use on MAT lands.  Upon expiration, he then established tribal-run lumber and cattle companies, thereby allowing the tribe to take control of its own financial destiny.  The papers document how the tribe soon diversified its financial interests into 1) recreation, via Ski Apache and an award-winning golf course; 2) hospitality, via the Inn of the Mountain Gods, a resort first opened in 1975 that after twenty years was the largest employer in Lincoln and Otero counties, a financial engine that pumps over $50 million into the area’s economy; and 3) perhaps most controversially, gaming with Casino Apache. Chino’s archival material also documents the internal issues of the reservation – the social issues that all politicians must tackle.  These include public safety, tribal courts, healthcare, housing, education and career training, support for the elderly, and infrastructure development.  During his time as president, Chino established schools, a hospital, and a healthcare center on the reservation.

Chino’s strong personality, booming voice, visionary ideas, and shrewd negotiating skills allowed him to win over supporters, gain political and financial backing, and challenge perceptions.  His son Mark stated, “He didn’t need a microphone.  He was a hell-fire and brimstone preacher and I think that’s where he got his speaking style.  People didn’t sleep through his sermons.”  This side of his personality and the longevity of his career is best seen in the speeches Chino delivered and the testimony he was called upon to give.  These statements provide the clearest insight into the power of his commitment to native peoples. Whether he spoke at a local high school graduation or before a United States Senate committee hearing, Chino cut to the heart of matter.  The collection contains copies and earlier drafts of his many public statements on issues important to the MAT and Native Americans.

Rita and Wendell Chino, 1973

Patricia and Wendell Chino, c.1965

The material in the photographs/AV series include black and white and color prints, along with slide transparencies, which capture both his personal and work life.  These images include ceremonial pictures that are currently restricted until cleared by the tribe due to the sensitive activities they depict.  The AV formats include 8 and 16mm films, U-Matic and VHS video tapes, and audio cassettes.  Of note is Apache Bootstrap, a 16mm film created in the mid-1960s.  Produced by the National Council of Churches and aired on ABC, the two-part film captures over its hour-long runtime the visible social problems found on the reservation and how the tribe was taking steps to bring it out of poverty.  We have recently digitized it for in-house viewing.

While the collections is not fully processed, it is still open for viewing and research. Please contact me directly if you would wish to examine the Wendell Chino papers, (575) 646-7711 or dylanmcd@nmsu.edu.


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