Indian leaders across the country asked President Reagan yesterday to fire Interior Secretary James G. Watt for blaming their economic plight on "socialistic government policies" and for calling Indian reservations "an example of the failure of socialism."
Calls for Watt's ouster came from Indian leaders in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Arizona and California and from the All-Indian Pueblo Council of 19 New Mexico reservations in response to a television interview in which Watt aired his views about the federal government's policies involving Indians.
Administration officials sought to stem the furor by telephoning Indian leaders to say that Watt had been misunderstood and had simply meant to say that the federal bureaucracy hinders Indian advancement. White House counselor Edwin Meese III said Watt, who as Interior secretary is the trustee for American Indians, was expressing concern for Indians' well-being.
Nonetheless, western governors and members of Congress as well as Indian leaders denounced the remarks as a signal of administration insensitivity to Indians, the nation's most impoverished minority group. New Mexico Gov. Toney Anaya (D) called on Watt to resign, and Montana Gov. Ted Schwinden (D) also attacked the statements Watt made in the interview.
"Any comparison to Russian socialism and Indian reservation life or government is simply red-baiting, old McCarthyism and totally inept as an analogy,"said Hank Adams, a Sioux Indian and national director of the Survival of American Indians Association.
Indian leaders said Watt misrepresented the reasons for social and economic strife on reservations.
"History would indicate that it has nothing to do with socialism, but with the excesses of capitalism--outsiders coming after Indian land and resources and breaking down tribal governments over the last 150 years," said Rick West, a Southern Cheyenne Indian and a Washington attorney representing several Indian tribes.
The National Tribal Chairmen's Association called an emergency meeting Monday of leaders of its 154 member-tribes to respond to Watt's "anti-Indian" rhetoric and accused him of aiding those who seek to exploit Indians.
In an interview aired yesterday on the "Conservative Counterpoint" program of the Satellite Program Network, Watt said: "If you want an example of the failures of socialism, don't go to Russia. Come to America, and see the American Indian reservations."
Watt said some tribal leaders "are interested in keeping this group of people assembled on a desert environment where there are no jobs, no agricultural potential, no water, because if Indians were allowed to be liberated, they'd go and get a job and that guy [the leader] wouldn't have his handout as a paid government Indian official."
Watt said in response to the outcry that he believes firmly in protecting reservations.
The uproar came as the White House was finishing a formal policy statement that would commit the Reagan administration to preserving Indian reservations and bettering the lot of the nation's 1.4 million Indians.
Indian leaders said they agree that federal regulations are a burden to them. But they accused the administration of trying to address those problems through economic development policies that will shatter traditional Indian cultures.
Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) said Watt "must have picked up some of his Indian policy from Gen. Custer."