In the legislative parlance of Washington, language cloaks meaning, and one man's reform is another man's power grab.

So it is with the issues that will bring hundreds of American Indians to Washington this week for the end of a 3,000-mile demonstration, called the Longest Walk.

At the heart of the demonstration is a series of legislative proposals that protest organizers say represent a festering "backlash" against Indians, the equivalent of a massacre of Indians without guns.

The bills carry names that have the heady sound of "progress" about them, like the "Native American Equal Opportunity Act," the "Omnibus Indian Jurisdiction Act," the "Steelhead Trout Protection Act," and the "State of Marine Aboriginal Claims Act."

But Longest Walk organizers regard them as an assault on existing Indian territory, natural resources and self-determination engineered by powerful economic interests.

The Native American Equal Opportunity Act is the most extreme among them, a measure one House staff member who has specialized in Indian affairs says "is little more than a racial slur."

Rep. Jack Cunningham (R-Wash.) has introduced two versions of the bill. Neither is given much chance of passage.

Both would repeal all existing Indian treaties, close all Indian hospitals, schools and housing projects, do away with Indian fishing and hunting rights, shut down the Bureau of Indian Affairs and end the special relationship Indians have had with the U.S. government.

"My bill would restore the independence and dignity of the native American by freeing him from the socially destructive paternalism of the federal government," Cunningham said yesterday.

In many ways, the backlash bills are a political response to the same "reverse discrimination" issue that the Alan Bakke case raised - a feeling that a minority group is getting special treatment.

Congress provides a ready vehicle. Its power over Indian affairs is almost absolute. Courts have ruled its authority over Indian matters to be largely a political question beyond the scope of judicial review.

This means the bottom line in almost any dispute over domestic Indian law is pretty much what Congress says it is. Treaties, negotiated in good faith by Indians years ago, are no exception. Congress, in effect, can change the terms of a domestic Indian treaty almost at will - something it cannot do in an international treaty without reprecussions. (The relationship between Indian treaties and international law is a matter of great dispute.)

Longest March organizers are attempting to organize opposition to 10 specific pieces of legislation, a majority of them arising out of the Washington state delegation.

One would eliminate Indian commercial fishing rights to the steelhead trout. Another would cut back on Indian water rights. Still another would end a knotty legal dispute in the Northeast with a payment to the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes who claim ownership of more than 40 per cent of the land in Maine.

"This legislation just hit us across the face," says Jose Barerra, a Longest March press spokesman. "It all has to do with natural resources. We see it as a legislative manifesto to open up Indian lands to energy development interests, ranchers and commercial fisherman."

The characterization of the bills as an "Indian backlash" is a controversial one. Tim Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center, maintains the term is little more than a media invention to describe what has been happening to Indians for generations.

"I think what's identified as backlash is more usefully described as racism," he says. "The use of the term backlash covers over the reality of the exploitation of Indian lands."

In an article in Civil Rights Digest, Coulter argues that the United States, through its courts and legislatures, has systemically deprived Indians of legal redress for "the most serious wrongs to Indian nations" and "has conclusively resolved the most crucial legal issues in favor of the U.S. and contrary to Indian interests."

The congressmen who have introduced the legislation that the Longest March is directed against take the opposite tack. They say their bills would rectify inequities that favor Indians.

Rep. Lloyd Meeds (D-Wash.), who until recently was regarded as somewhat of a champion of Indian affairs, has introduced two of the most far-reaching bills in this category: the Omnibus Indian Jurisdiction Act and the Quantification of Federal Reserved Water Rights for Indian Reservations Act.

The latter would alter what has been U.S. water policy since 1908 under what is called the "Winters Doctrine." That doctrine holds that Indians have paramount rights to all water resources that arise upon, border, pass through or lie under reservations to satisfy both present and future needs.

Meeds would end that. The policy, he argues in a memorandum prepared to explain the bill, "jeopardizes established expectations to the continued use of water and precludes effective planning for the development, management and use of a scarce natural resource."

Meeds would freeze water rights at current uses, force relitigation of water claims adjudicated during the last 70 years, and take away water rights from Indian tribes that do not file claims for them during the next five years. The bill, a memo prepared by the Senate subcommittee on Indian affairs staff argues, "is probably unconstitutional" and "is clearly a violation of treaty agreements."

Meed's Omnibus Indian Jurisdiction Act would strip Indian tribes of criminal jurisdiction over anyone on reservations except tribal members, and limit current jurisdiction over Indians.

Meeds considers this a major reform. "In today's chaotic setting, if you were driving a car on an Indian reservation in many states and were involved in an accident with an Indian driver, chances are you would not be able to recover damages," he has written.

"Similarly, if you resided on an Indian reservation, as do thousands of non-Indian Americans, your land would probably be subject to zoning, taxation and other regulations by tribal authority for which you have no right to representation."