Indian scholars and activists here have accused President Carter of reneging on his campaign promises and "deceptively" abandoning federal support of Indian treaty claims.
At a conference attended by both Indian and non-Indian scholars and writers that ended yesterday. Carter was portrayed as a president who started out well but had retreated steadily in the face of the anti-Indian backlash sweeping the West.
Though most of those who spoke are identified with the liberal Democratic side of the political spectrum, many of them unfavorably compared Carter's actions on Indian issues with those of former president Nixon.
"Whatever else Nixon did, at least he took a policy stand for Indian people," said Edward Johnson, a member of the Walker River Paiute Tribal Council in Nevada and author of a history of his tribe. "I don't think Carter has a policy stand - except on human rights for people in other countries."
The criticisms made of Carter policies were many, varied and contradictory, but were united by a common theme that neither the president nor his staff understand Indian treaty issues. The scholars were gathered to attend a five-day conference on "The Writer and the West" sponsored by Levi Strauss and Co. which focused in its final two days on the issues of "Indians, whites and Western lands."
The most systematic criticism came from Alvin M. Josephy Jr., editor of American Heritage magazine and author of numerous Indian books. Josephy, who prepared policy papers on Indian affairs for both the Kennedy and Nixon administratons, said that Carter quietly was favoring a policy of "termination" under which the federal government would sever its protective relations with Indian tribes.
This policy was endorsed by Congress in 1953 and pursued in the early Eisenhower administration. After strong opposition by Indians and some conspicuous failures, it was abandoned by subsequent presidents.
As evidence of Carter's leanings, Josephy cited the proposal to remove educational programs from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which he said was the prelude to the eventual dismantling of the bureau.
A similar point was made by Indian author Shirley Hill Witt, a regional director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, who said that Indians "anticipate termination under the rubric of reorganization."
"The Carter people know nothing and appear to care little about Indian affairs," Witt said.
John E. Echohawk, director of the Native American Rights Fund, said that Carter had started out by making good appointments in the Department of Interior and by helping Maine Indians in their treaty claims.
However, Echohawk said that Attorney General Griffin B. Bell, against the advice of his own lawyers, had decided to review the federal trust responsibility under which the government intervenes to help Indians preserve their treaty rights. Both Echohawk and Josephy said that Interior Department officials have little authority in the Carter administration and that policies toward Indians - actually are determined by the president's Office of Management and Budget.
At the conference, Indians repeatedly made the point that they are not seeking equality but rather enforcement of the special status guaranteed to them in 389 treaties and more than 2,000 court decisions.
Non-Indians, said Echohawk, are after "what little we have left our lands and our resources," Johnson said that termination would make the Indians "poor and ejual."
One central complaint was that Carter, by declining to make a forceful policy statement that Indian treaties will be observed, was encouraging the backlash that became evident after Indians started to win court cases upholding their treaty claims to water, land and fishing rights.
"The era of the noble red man has passed in the West," said Utah historian C. Gregory Crampton. "I'm afraid that if the Indians wins in court, there's going to be an effort to take what he has won away from him."
The Indians here fear that this effort is likely to come in the next Congress after Sen. James Abourezk (D.S.D.) has retired and the Select Indian Affairs Committee he heads has expired. At that time, predicted Echohawk, an attempt will be made to pass one or another pending bill to aborogate various treaty rights.