When he was chairman of the Indian affairs subcommittee three years ago, Rep. Lloyd Meeds (D-Wash.) was known as something of a champion of the desires of the American Indian.
"At the time," said Meeds, who no longer heads the panel, "there was this feeling around the House that these were pretty good civil rights votes. Besides, no one was paying much attention to the Indians then."
In Meeds' Puget Sound district, they are paying plenty of attention these days. Indian demands for fishing catches equal to those of non-Indian fishermen based on a century old treaty - one upheld recently in federal court - have sparked what is close to open warfare among Meeds' constituents.
Now, the seven-term congressman uses the word "out-rageous" to describe Indian demands. Like Meeds, a number of former Indian supporters in Congress have begun to shy away from Indian issues, particularly since Indian land claims have begun to be filed in Eastern states and the controversy over conflicting Indian and non-Indian water claims in the West has grown.
"There's no question that a very substantial shift in feeling is under way, particularly where these claims are being felt," Meeds said.
The extent of that shift was made clear last week when a billion in reparations for interest federal officials had ignored on a federal land purchase in the Midwest.
Indian supporters and House staff members backing the bill considered it certain to pass, based on previous congressional experience with similar Indian claims. The bill didn't even come close, going down by a vote of 239 to 173.
"That was what really brought it home that things have changed around here," said one House staff worker who was involved with the bill. "We thought we had all our ducks in a row and they just clobbered us. It's really got a lot of people worried now."
What precipitated the movement away from Indian support is a proliferation in the last few years of Indian land claims, many of them in areas where politicians had never given a thought to Indian issues and, like Meeds, often supported the Indians' side as a political gesture.
Right now nearly a dozen land claims have either been filed or threatened along the East Coast by Indians. They include claims to two-thirds of the state of Maine, an entire town in Massachusetts and sizable chunks of land in upstate New York and in the Southeast.
In addition , some federal officials estimate that Indians may file as many as a thousand claims for federal financial settlements on various issues and Indians in the West have sought water, hunting and fishing rights in areas that were previously thought to belong to non-Indians.
All this has raised doubts among some members of Congress who had unhesitatingly backed Indian bills in the past. Meeds' predicament, while not unique, is so clear cut that it has given rise to something his colleagues only half-jokingly refer to as "the Lloyd Meeds syndrome."
Meeds acknowledges that the pressures are growing on congressional members to alter their stand on Indian affairs. When he was home last fall and told Washington voters he was willing to along with the federal court decision on Indian fishing rights Meeds nearly lost his elected job.
The big issue of the campaign turned out to be the fishing demands and Meeds squeaked by with a 524 vote victory, the narrowest margin in his political career.
"Politicians reflect their constituents' feelings," said Meeds. "There is an increasing feeling that most people have the right to claim title to the continent after living here 400 years."
That assessment is seconded by another congressman whose district is located a continent away from Meeds.' "Some people in Congress feel they have just had it with the Indians," said Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass) who represents an area including the town of Mashpee, Mass.
The Mashpee Wampanoag Indian tribal council has been seeking rights to nearly all the land under the Cape Cod city. Studds met in December with 600 angry residents of the Mashpee area to explain that there was little he could do about the Indian claim that wouldn't tie it up in court for years. Meanwhile, he said, Mashpee homeowners have been unable to sell their homes or get home loans because of the Indian claim.
Studds joined Meeds in voting last week against the Sioux tribal claim. "I can't even remember whether I voted for or against Indian bills in the past but there's no question that before we pass any more of these things we have to get our act together on a national policy on this Indian question," Studds said. "People are cooling down on the Indians very fast because of all these claims."
Another leader in the fight against the Sioux bill was Rep. William S. Cohen (R-Maine), whose district is almost entirely covered by claims from Maine's Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Indians to 12 million acres.
The key to most of the eastern Indian land claims is the Indian Non-Intercourse Act of 1790, which prohibits the sale or disposal of Indian lands without congressional approval. Most of the transfers cited in the Indians' eastern claims never had that approval.
Rep. John Cunningham. (R.-Wash.), who succeeded Transportation Secretary Brock Adams in Adams' Washington congressional district earlier this year, recently introuced a bill to terminate all treaties between the U.S. government and Indians. The bill, which would remove legal grounds for Indian claims, was called the Native Americans Equal Opportunity Act.
Meanwhile, there is growing pressure on Congress to stop claims by Indians. One group opposed to such claims calls itself the Interstate Congress for Equal Rights and Responsibilities. The organization has members in 18 states, including 5,000 in Washington state alone.
"The system appears to have gone overboard and we want our political leaders to balance it up again." said the group's president, Jack Freemen, a rancher in Faith. S. D.
Two years ago when the group was formed. Freeman said, few members of Congress paid much attention to it. "Now." he said, "the tide is turning and we don't have much trouble at all getting the ear" of a lot of congressional members.