Twelve-year-old Dora Garza of Carson has grown up Indian and proud.
Her parents have taken her to powwows since she was an infant, and she has performed traditional Indian dances since she was a preschooler. Sometimes she dresses up in the beadwork earrings and other Indian-style jewelry her mother has made for her.
But unless there is a change in federal policy, Dora won't be able to take part in the Indian education program when she enters Stephen M. White Junior High School in the fall.
All three of Dora's older siblings participated in the federally funded program of academic assistance and cultural enrichment for Indian children, one of several dozen such programs in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
But Dora isn't eligible. Even though her forebears were Comanche, Apache and Yaqui (as well as Italian), she has not been able to prove that she has Indian blood according to the strict criteria required under Title IV-A of the Indian Education Act.
All that really stands between Dora and the program is a piece of paper, the government's Indian Student Certification Form 506.
To be considered an Indian for the purposes of federal education funding, Dora must establish via the 506 form that she or her parents or grandparents are members of a recognized Indian tribe, band or organized group (or, alternatively, that she is an Eskimo, Aleut or other Alaska native or is "considered by the Secretary of the Interior to be an Indian for any purpose").
This usually means producing a tribal membership number or some other number showing that an ancestor was officially recognized by the bureaucracy surrounding Indian affairs.
The forms have been required since 1979, although enforcement has been lax. But this year, the government began strict enforcement of the 506-form requirement. Program directors have been told to get their paper work in order and have been advised that only students with completed forms on file will be funded as of January, 1987.
The government's new stringency affects more than 7,000 children who participated last year in Los Angeles and Orange counties. (Almost 300,000 children participated nationwide.)
As Tim Faulkner, a Cherokee who coordinates Indian education for the L. A. school district, explained, many Indian children cannot complete the paper work, for reasons that range from the tendency of records to be lost in tumultuous times to occasional instances of tribal non-cooperation.
Certification is especially hard for urban Indians such as the Garzas whose families have not maintained close tribal ties.
In the past, the government unofficially recognized the difficulties that can arise in completing the form by accepting proof of a family's "good faith effort" to document its Indian heritage.
Although a completed 506 form was the only officially acceptable proof, the government's practice was to fund any child whose parents or guardians claimed Indian ethnicity and could show that they had written to the appropriate tribe or tribes about the membership status of eligible family members.
A spokesman for the United States Department of Education said the government began cracking down after an audit revealed that most school districts were not complying with the statute.
Although the new practice upholds the letter of the law, its effect has also been to exclude students from the program who are, in the words of one observer, "no less Indian because they can't prove it."
The Department of Education is aware of the problem, according to Ervin Keith, acting deputy director for Indian education programs, and will shortly propose expanded, more flexible criteria for documenting Indian ethnicity. These new criteria may make certification easier for students who lack tribal membership numbers. "We don't want any Indian student to be denied participation in the Indian education program," said another Department of Education official.
Meanwhile, the government's new stringency has halved the number of students eligible for the L. A. Unified School District's program. According to Faulkner, 2,144 Indian students participated last year. Only 1,092 children have acceptable 506 forms on file in his office for the coming school year.
"I know for a fact that there are Indian people that are eliminated from the program," said Faulkner, who advocates broadening the certification criteria to include students whose parents or grandparents never acquired federal or tribal numbers.
The drop in the number of eligible students has also halved the district's funds for Indian education.
In recent years the federal government has allotted $122 per student for the program, providing the district with an annual budget of about $250,000. This year, the office will receive $131,561 from Washington. (For the first time, the school district will also help finance the program, contributing one third of Faulkner's $46,693 annual salary).