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Senators Call For Reduced Control Over Indian Aid

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Washington--In a blueprint for what it calls a "New Federalism for American Indians," a Senate panel has proposed the gradual reduction of federal oversight for Indian programs and the rechanneling of billions of dollars in aid directly to tribal governments.

The tribes, which would negotiate formal agreements with the United States, would then be free to allocate the money any way they wished--for increased education, health care, and other social services, or for new efforts to regenerate the faltering Native American economy.

"Paternalistic federal control over American Indians has created a federal bureaucracy ensnarled in red tape and riddled with fraud, mismangement, and waste," the bipartisan Special Committee on Investigations charged in a report issued Nov. 17.

The 238-page document reflects testimony given during a series of Congressional hearings and fact-finding trips that were part of a two-year probe. It chronicles a widespread pattern of political corruption and mismanagement on reservations that has included rampant, unreported child abuse at federally run Indian schools.

The report was released here at a press conference held by Senators Dennis Deconcini and John McCain, both of Arizona, and Senator Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota.

The lawmakers blamed both the "benign neglect" of the Congress and denial of problems by federal agencies--particularly the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs--for the current state of unmet government responsibilities.

"In every area it touches," the report says, "the BIA is plagued by mismanagement." This is so, it adds, despite many dedicated BIA employees.

"The inability of so many good people to have a real impact," the document
concludes, "only underscores the terminal sickness of the institution itself."

Interior Responds

As its proposed remedy, the panel, an arm of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, recommends the establishment of an independent Office of Federal-Tribal Relations within the Executive branch to oversee the long-term phase out of the BIA, the Department of Health and Human Services' Indian Health Service, and other oversight agencies.

"It is our hope that the BIA will shrink" as a result of a planned legislative initiative, said Senator DeConcini, who headed the three-member panel.

But officials of the Interior Department, in a written response to the report, said that to view the recommendations as "primarily abolishing the [BIA] and other federal-agency involvement in Indian programs misses [a] key point."

According to the statement, "the basic thrust of the report reflects changes already under way" to increase self-determination among the tribes.

In fact, "self-determination" has been a key feature of U.S. Indian policy since the Nixon Administration, with efforts aimed at giving tribes greater responsibility over programs--particularly those in education--having been accelerated during the Reagan Administration. (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1989.)

But Reagan-era initiatives were seen by many in the Native American community as a disguised effort to cut back on the federal financial commitment. The Senate panel's proposal, by contrast, would seek to ensure levels of funding, with built-in, cost-of-living adjustments.

Entitlements Proposed

The committee recommends that tribes be allowed to enter into voluntary agreements with the federal government whereby their prorated share of the approximately $3 billion spent annually on Indian programs would be channeled into "permanent entitlements" paid directly to the tribal coffers.

Tribes with democratically approved constitutions that chose to enter such agreements would, in exchange, pledge to abide by federal statutes barring political corruption and to institute new safeguards against patronage and graft.

The report recognizes that, because smaller tribes lack the expertise to undertake this self-governing role immediately, the existing federal bureaucracies will be needed for perhaps decades.

Education 'Not a Priority'

Spokesmen for both the Interior Department and the Senate committee were uncertain how the proposal, if enacted into law, would affect the 184 BIA-funded schools.

The report recaps the highly-publicized cases of child sexual abuse in BIA schools and recommends steps to halt the spread of such crimes. But education, a spokesman said, was "not a central focus" of the committee's investigation.

"I think that, [as with] many other government services, there is a thought among the committee members that the best schools are tribally run," said an aide, Sam Hirsch.

The report itself says that under its proposed system "the range of options available to the tribe will be almost limitless: it can invest in schools, medical clinics, or physical infrastructure; it can promote individual Indian entrepreneurship, tribal businesses, or mineral extraction; it can purchase land on the open market; or it can hire management consultants and other experts to improve the administration of tribal agencies."

Legislative Proposals

Under the proposed arrangement, large tribes, such as the Navajo Nation, with 200,000 members, could receive as much as $600 million annually. But even a small tribe of 350 members would receive an annual grant of more than $1 million, according to the report. Allocations would be made on the basis of population.

Mr. DeConcini said many of the report's recommendations will be introduced as legislation by year's end. A measure to crack down on sexual abuse at reservation schools is expected to be among those bills.

Earlier this year, the committee heard lengthy testimony charging that the BIA had been lax in checking the backgrounds of school employees, and had failed to discipline those who tried to cover up incidents of child abuse. (See Education Week, Feb. 8, 1989.)

In response to the report, the BIA issued copies of a letter to tribal leaders from Eddie F. Brown, the Interior Department's new assistant secretary for Indian affairs. It notes that the agency has established a five-step plan to combat child abuse that includes a "rigorous screening process" for prospective employees and the updating of personnel manuals to include strict reporting provisions.

The committee's proposed "Indian child-abuse-prevention and treatment act" would create a mandatory reporting law similar to those enacted by most states.

It would also: make failure to report allegations and instances of child abuse a federal crime; require federal and tribal agencies to conduct background checks of prospective employees; establish a "reliable database" of child-abuse statistics; and increase a federal fund for crime victims by $10 million to provide treatment specifically for Indian children.

Reaction Mixed

Reaction last week from tribal leaders was mixed.

"The Indian way has been lost," said Representative Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Democrat of Colorado, the only Native American in the Congress. "This document is not an optimistic report, but perhaps that is what is needed."

Richard L. Welch, chairman of the Tribal Council for the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina, indicated that the recommendations might be a "smokescreen" to hide future cuts in federal spending.

Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, chairman of the Select Committee has announced that he plans to schedule hearings on the report for early next year.

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