Barely a year ago, Ross O. Swimmer signed his name to a report that called for the elimination of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, citing bloated administrative costs, "underqualified" personnel and a "Byzantine system of overregulation."

"The system is designed for paternalistic control and it thrives on the failure of Indian tribes," said the report of the Presidential Commission on Indian Reservation Economies, of which Swimmer was co-chairman.

So deeply rooted were the BIA's failures, the report said, that they "cannot be overcome by entrusting to the bureau's bureaucracy the responsibility of reforming itself."

Today, Swimmer, a 42-year-old lawyer and banker, sits somewhat reluctantly in a fourth-floor office at the Interior Department, newly sworn in as assistant secretary for Indian affairs and in charge of reforming the BIA.

The first task for the tall, soft-spoken Oklahoman is feathering the hard edges of the report he helped write in 1984 at President Reagan's request.

Abolish the BIA?

"I don't think we'll ever do that," he said. "Sure, that's the goal and it should always be the goal. Otherwise, it's simply a continuation of the dependency relationship and it feeds on itself . . . .

"But I'm not saying 'take away the federal programs, take away the money and all of a sudden people will find something else to do.' That's just unrealistic. There has to be a transition."

With the transition in Swimmer's hands, the Reagan administration is clearly hoping to replicate on a national scale the kind of economic progress he is credited with bringing to Oklahoma's Cherokee Nation, which he served as principal chief for 10 years.

When he was first elected to the post in 1975, $9 out of every $10 received by the Cherokee Nation came from federal and state grants. Today, Cherokee-owned and operated businesses -- from a cattle and poultry ranch to commercial properties in Stilwell and Tahlequah -- provide 42 percent of the tribe's revenue. Tribal assets have risen more than 250 percent to $34 million, and a $100 million hydroelectric plant is on the drawing boards.

The BIA job was pressed on him last year by Interior Secretary Donald Hodel when Swimmer, just beginning his third term as head of the Cherokee Nation, came to Washington on tribal business.

Swimmer was not eager for the challenge. His family had just moved to Tulsa. His wife, Margaret, was practicing law; his two teen-aged sons were getting settled in school.

"I was looking forward to not running for reelection [to tribal office], to have my political career over," he said ruefully. "I was just setting up to live, and hopefully prosper."

But Hodel was persistent. Swimmer brought his wife to Washington to meet the secretary and, after an emotional meeting in Hodel's office, agreed to take the job. The family remains in Oklahoma for the time being; Swimmer commutes.

The job had been vacant for more than a year, testimony to the administration's difficulty in finding a candidate willing to take on one of the government's most entrenched and volatile bureaucracies. The BIA predates the Interior Department by 25 years, and much of its 161-year history has been spent presiding over one government misstep after another.

Naturally enough, tribes tend to be skeptical of the sporadic efforts to "reform" the BIA, and their skepticism gave way to fear when the presidential commission Swimmer co-chaired released its report in late 1984. In its 130 pages, replete with references to entrepreneurism and self-determination, some tribal leaders saw a return to the disastrous "termination" policies of the 1950s, when the government's attempts to phase out federal supervision of reservations collapsed in economic and cultural chaos.

Swimmer dismisses the fears as groundless, and suggests that opposition to the report has been fed by "faceless bureaucrats who are worried about the accountability issue."

He acknowledged, however, that not all tribes are as well equipped to pursue economic development as the Cherokees, the nation's second-largest tribe (Navajos are the largest).

Some tribes "are not organized to govern themselves," he said. "They don't have basic accounting systems, purchasing systems, personnel."

Entrepreneurial efforts have also fallen victim to cultural clashes on some reservations, but Swimmer dismisses the argument that development is a threat per se to native traditions.

"The concern is that maybe if we become successful we lose our Indianness," he said. "I don't believe that. I just don't believe that you have to maintain a state of poverty in order to say that you're an Indian and live on the reservation."

Neither, he says, does economic progress necessarily mean turning the reservation into an industrial park.

"I think there is another myth that says the only way we can develop economies on the reservation is to bring in industry, to industrialize, put a big company out there and hire all the Indians," he said. "There is a market on the reservation. People are buying clothes. People are buying cars. People are buying gas, and they're going 50 miles off the reservation to do it."

There is one form of economic development, however, that Swimmer views with distaste: bingo.

In recent years, high-stakes bingo parlors have sprung up on more than 100 reservations, drawing hundreds of thousands of eager gamblers and raking in revenues of more than $100 million a year.

Despite concerns that the lucrative and largely unregulated games may draw organized crime and unscrupulous operators into the reservation, the parlors have enjoyed the support of Interior officials -- including Hodel, who has defended bingo as a legitimate way to meet tribes' financial needs and reduce unemployment.

But when Swimmer's own tribal council voted to get in on the action, he exercised his right of veto. "It sends the wrong signal -- that there is a quick way, a fast buck to be made, that economic development simply means dollars in your pocket instead of people development," he said.

"The horror stories are out there," he said. A Cherokee leader in North Carolina recently told him that the bingo game there had taken in $31 million, of which the tribe got just $1 million.

Swimmer finds his economic encouragement in more mundane quarters. On a recent visit to the Navajo reservation in Arizona, for example, he spotted a group of teen-agers marketing peanuts on a street corner in Window Rock.

"Here are budding entrepreneurs, who are out there making a buck selling a product commercially," he said with a smile. "We need to work on that. We need to encourage it. They are the future economy."