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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: 'Lost' Tribe Seeks Status- Kickapoos Hope For Official Arizona Recognition

They were wanderers who crossed state and national borders looking for a safe homeland.

Along the way, they disappeared.

The "Lost Kickapoos," a small band of 150 Indians that has lived on Arizona's border with Mexico for more than 100 years, are finally reconnecting to their roots and could become Arizona's 23rd tribe.

Until recently, the group had almost no contact with its parent tribe in Oklahoma, and its presence has gone largely unnoticed by other tribal leaders in Arizona.

But last year, with help from the Oklahoma tribe, the Arizona group purchased a building in Douglas, just north of the border, to serve as a tribal field office.

The tribe plans to seek trust status for the building, a process that can take several years.

If successful, the tribal land holding would make the Kickapoos the 23rd official tribe in Arizona and could make them eligible to participate in state gambling compacts, although tribal officials say they have no plans for a casino.

The Kickapoos originated near the Great Lakes and retreated south and west to avoid encroaching White settlers. Eventually, they were forced to relocate to Oklahoma.

A splinter group left and settled on lands in Texas and Mexico, and another group moved to the Arizona-Sonora border.

About half of them live in Douglas and Willcox on the U.S. side. Many of the rest live in a tiny Mexican village called Tamichopa.

Eighteen-year-old Liliana Barbachan, who lives on the Mexican side of the border, can point to her great-great-great-grandfather Pehkotah in a book about the Mexican Kickapoos, but that's about all she knows about her heritage.

Jack Jackson, Jr., a Navajo who heads the Arizona Commission of Indian Affairs, said he had never heard of Kickapoos in Arizona.

"The interesting thing in this is the gaming compact," Jackson said. "It's already signed, sealed and delivered. I don't know how it would play out if we have a 23rd tribe."

John Lewis, executive director of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, said he had heard of the Kickapoos a few years ago but didn't know what their state or national status was.

"I know they've been around for quite some time in Texas and Mexico," Lewis said. "One of the interesting things about them is they go back and forth across the border."

Licelda Mahtapene, 30, head of the Douglas field office, said the Arizona group descended from three men.

"There were two brothers named Mahtapene and a man named Okema, which was later changed to Oscar," she said.

Licelda is married to Jose Mahtapene, who is half Kickapoo.

"He can remember some of the things his dad used to believe in and speak about," she said.

Jose's mother gave Licelda a book about the Mexican Kickapoos before she died, and Licelda is trying to learn all she can to teach their two children.

"They want to know more," she said. "They think it's so cool."

Tribal members from Oklahoma have begun to visit on holidays, bringing traditional foods and clothing to show their cousins.

Chasey Serrato, enrollment director for the tribe, lives in Oklahoma but remembers taking her mother to Tamichopa to visit relatives, including Serrato's grandmother.

"My mother told me to help the tribal members down there, to keep them alive," Serrato said.

Serrato said the tribe is focused on getting U.S. citizenship for the Mexican members.

In 1983, Congress passed a special law granting citizenship to the Kickapoos on both sides of the border near Eagle Pass, Texas. But the law did not cover any members in Arizona, and for many years, they had trouble crossing the border.

Today, many of the group on the Arizona-Sonora border have U.S. citizenship. Border officials honor Kickapoo identification cards as proof of U.S. descent, allowing them to cross back and forth freely.

And those who come over from Mexico to work have proper documentation.

"They're passing hard times over in Mexico," Licelda said. So many come for jobs, working at nurseries and other businesses on the Arizona side.

"A lot of them live in Willcox, across from each other," Licelda said. "It's not like a reservation, but there's about 10 families or so."

One of them, Manuela Peralta Oscar, lives in a trailer on a dusty lot in Willcox.

The family moved there eight years ago from Tamichopa so that Manuela's husband, a member of the Mahtapene family, could work at Bonita Nurseries, growing tomatoes. Inside her trailer, Manuela keeps an album with pictures of Tamichopa.

The pictures show a landscape lush with trees and Manuela's children swimming, riding horses and roping cows.

After school, Manuela makes a snack of flour tortillas and meatballs in broth with a squeeze of fresh lime juice for her children, Elfida Tona, 11, and Armando Tona, 7.

Many of the Kickapoos have forgotten their own traditions and adopted Mexican ones, she says in Spanish.

Jesus Oscar Chanez, 63, proudly pulls out his Kickapoo identification card.

He remembers his father's Kickapoo name, Apekaan, and says there's an "h" in it somewhere, but he can't remember where.

He said he was never given a Kickapoo name, and although his parents spoke Kickapoo, he remembers only one word, Ho, a friendly greeting.

Two months ago, Jesus and his daughter traveled back to Oklahoma with a group of Arizona Kickapoos.

It was the first time any of them had seen the reservation.

They saw traditional bark houses and met cousins.

"I thought it was beautiful," Jesus says in Spanish. "I would like to live there someday."

This article appears in the Arizona Republic.

Judy Nichols

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

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