A Reagan administration commission has proposed increasing private enterprise and reducing the government's role on the nation's Indian reservations, prompting a tribal chiefs' organization to warn of "a crisis situation for the Indian country."
Indians have long sought more autonomy to run their affairs. But some of the latest proposals -- including a recommendation to replace the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) with a streamlined agency to oversee the government's trust responsibilities -- have fueled concerns among Indians that the federal government may be about to retreat from its hundred-year-old commitment to protect America's Indian nations and their resources.
Under the proposals, the new agency would be less involved in direct management of Indian affairs, instead giving the tribes block grants with an eye toward eventually letting them contract for their own services.
"The idea, as the tribes see it, is to reduce the federal role in the trust management," said Elmer M. Savilla, executive director of the National Tribal Chairmen's Association. The group plans to meet in an emergency session in Reno, Nev., this week to respond to what Savilla called "the most dangerous paper on proposed Indian policy to be written in many years."
The recommendations were sent to the White House Nov. 30 by the Presidential Commission on Indian Reservation Economies. President Reagan appointed the nine-member panel two years ago to advise him on "what actions should be taken to develop a stronger private sector on federally recognized Indian reservations" and to "reduce the federal presence in Indian affairs."
The commission was co-chaired by Robert Robertson, a vice president of Occidental Petroleum Corp. who was Republican Sen. Paul Laxalt's aide when Laxalt was Nevada's governor; and by Ross O. Swimmer, chief of Oklahoma's Cherokee Nation.
Among the commission's recommendations were that Indian tribal governments be modernized, that private businesses and Indian entrepreneurs be encouraged on reservations, that banks be allowed to deal more directly with reservations and that Indian reservations be exempted from certain federal labor laws so that firms could hire Indian workers at cheaper wages.
One controversial recommendation calls for reservation taxes to be determined by referenda, with all reservation residents having a vote. On many reservations, Indians are in the minority, and some fear the change is meant to end traditional tribal dominance.
The potentially explosive nature of some of the suggestions prompted one commission member, David Matheson, who chairs Idaho's Coeur D'Alene Tribe, to blast his commission colleagues as "uninformed and insensitive." In a letter to Robertson, Matheson called the proposal to dismantle the BIA "ludicrous, near impossible to implement, and obviously 'off-the-wall.' "
In a written response, Robertson accused Matheson of trying to disassociate himself from the report because of the "pressures you were experiencing from people within the Indian bureaucracy."
After the report's release, the tribal chairmen's group, which primarily represents reservation Indians, had issued a statement that its members "questioned the loyalties of . . . Indians who participated in the work of the commission."
One Indian member of the commission, Neal A. McCaleb of Oklahoma's Chickasaw tribe, replied, "The recommendations are controversial and they are sweeping in nature, so we had expected some not-so-unanimous reaction." He said Indian critics are trying to please the BIA, with which they must deal daily, and their own tribes.
McCaleb, a former Republican leader in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, said, " . . . After 150 years of failure, the federal government is not going to be able to deliver a viable, self-sustaining economy to the reservations."
The report calls for the Indian tribes to make "a radical break with the past dependency on the federal government."
Calling the U.S. government "one of the major obstacles to Indian economic progress," the report adds, "The federal-Indian relationship needs to mature beyond that of benign paternalism to that of a federalist partnership."
In fiscal 1984, the federal government spent $2.65 billion on Indian programs, including $824 million for the BIA, $777 million for the Health and Human Services Department's Indian Health Service and $309 million on food and nutrition programs in the Agriculture Department.
Like other interest groups that rely on federal funds, Indians have complained about the Reagan administration's budget cuts. For example, BIA's operating funds dropped from $954 million in fiscal 1983 to $823 million in fiscal 1984.
The White House and the Interior Department are still reviewing the commission's recommendations. "We're trying to determine what seems to be feasible and what is not feasible," said Interior spokesman Robert K. Walker. He said the department's final comments may be given to President Reagan later this month.
Walker said that "before any changes are made, there would be consultation with the tribes . . . . We're not going to try to cram anything down their throats."
Any major change in the Indians' relationship with the federal government would have to be approved through legislation. Both Indian and Interior Department sources said privately that the recommendations are likely to become part of a proposal for reorganizing the Energy and Interior departments into one.
Interior is in flux now that Secretary William P. Clark has announced his resignation. Kenneth L. Smith, the assistant secretary for Indian affairs, also has resigned.
So even while the commission's report was met with some outrage among Indians, it was tempered by their belief that nothing is likely to happen overnight. "No one's going to pay any attention," said Suzan Harjo, representative of the National Congress of American Indians, which primarily represents Indians who live off the reservations. "This report will probably have the same shelf-life of all the other reports that have been done."
Still, the report has rekindled some Indian fears of "termination," or the ending of their special relationship with the government.
To allay Indian concern that the push for private enterprise portends termination, the commission members recommended that Congress repeal its Resolution 108, which began a short-lived process of phasing-out federal supervision of reservations in the 1950s. The process was stopped when government officials thought that the result was economic and cultural chaos, but the resolution remains on the books.
"The very first recommendation in our report is a repudiation of that resolution," said commission member McCaleb. "There is not a shred of evidence that the intent is to terminate the trust relationship."
"Regardless of what President Reagan says about repudiation of House Resolution 108," replied Savilla, "and despite the lip service paid to the special government relationship, the pattern of the last four years has the chiefs worried about termination."