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Indians Contend Reagan Weakening B.I.A. Programs

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President Reagan has failed to carry out campaign promises to give tribes greater control of their affairs, and the Administration has defied several acts of Congress and weakened several education programs, a major American Indian organization charged last week.

The charges were made in a 36-page report of the National Tribal Chairmen's Association, which says it represents 166 tribal leaders. The report came two weeks after Secretary of the Interior James H. Watt provoked strong protests from Indian leaders with his criticism of Indian education programs run by the department's Bureau of Indian Affairs (bia).

The Indian organization criticized Administration proposals to close several schools, transfer control of a New Mexico community college to the state, end funding for early-education programs, determine who is eligible for Indian programs, and set academic standards.

Abandoned Promises

A spokesman for the Interior Department, however, denied charges that the President had abandoned his promises. The spokesman said the bia had consulted Indians about policy more than it had in previous Administrations.

The report called on Representative Sidney R. Yales, Democrat of Illinois and chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies, to hold public hearings on Indian education.

It also asked that the General Accounting Office investigate the spending of funds for "non-federally recognized Indians." The term "federally recognized" refers to tribes with which the government has a special relationship through treaty, trust agreement, executive order, or court action.

The Administration's policies and budget cuts "threaten to destroy gains made by the tribes over the last 10 years," the report states. It adds that efforts to reorganize education programs and cut funding are "in defiance of the Congressional mandate."

The academic standards proposed by the bia, the report says, are "unfeasible, unrealistic, unworkable, inconsistent, and violative of the bia mission statement."

The report said that the Administration was cutting funding for Indian-education programs in a way that is sometimes "arbitrary."

The report took strong exception to an Administration proposal to give the assistant secretary of the interior the right to have "final and unreviewable" authority over some academic standards. The plan is ''only a thinly veiled process for eliminating" many schools, the report said.

Secretary Watt last month said that American Indian schools do a poor job of educating their students because of federal interference.

Speaking at an anniversary celebration for a Colorado River dam in Arizona, Mr. Watt said the American Indians' education system is "deplorable."

"I'm the superintendent of Indian schools for 42,000 American Indian children, and we do a disgraceful job," Mr. Watt told a Page, Ariz., luncheon meeting that included the governors of Arizona and Utah.

William Leap, the education director for the National Congress of American Indians, said Mr. Watt's statements were "frustrating" because statistics indicate that the educational achievements of American Indians have increased significantly in recent years.

Lower dropout rates, strong community opposition to school closings, and a greater demand for higher education are all signs of improvement, Mr. Leap said.

"Watt's entitled to his opinions, but I don't think tribal leaders would agree," he said. "If the bureau hadn't been there, there would be a lot fewer opportunities."

A Washington official for the bia agreed.

"There's no doubt at all that Indian kids are going further," said Vincent Lovett, a public-information specialist for the bia "Education is probably the most hopeful thing of all among the Indian community."

Mr. Lovett said the number of American Indians entering college and participating in graduate studies is now straining the amount of money available for scholarships. In the early 1970's, he said, the scholarships did not attract enough candidates.

The number of Indians who graduate from college each year has increased from 200 in 1976 to 343 in 1980, according to the latest figures made available by the bia

Patrick E. Graham, chairman of the Arizona Indian Education Project, said Mr. Watt's remarks showed that he "doesn't understand much about Indian education."

Mr. Graham, who is also the special-projects director for the state's Window Rock School District, said that the Reagan Administration's budget proposals would adversely affect the budgets of the public schools and bia schools attended by Indian children.

Little Revenue From Taxes

Because most of the land on Indian reservations is federally owned, Mr. Graham said, the schools receive little revenue from property taxes. Before a federal court decision found the rate "confiscatory," he said, one district had a 50-percent property-tax rate. Most districts' rates are around 20 percent, he added.

"They say they want no strings [attached to aid to Indians]," he said, "but then they give much less money."

Last January, Mr. Watt said the Indian reservations were "an example of the failures of socialism" that led to "the highest divorce rate, the highest drug rate, the highest alcoholism rate, highest unemployment rate, [and] highest social diseases."

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