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The Indian Story

December 25, 1986

There was a rare good-news story about American Indians in The Times this past week: an article by staff writer Tom Gorman about economic success on the Choctaw reservation in Mississippi. Three businesses owned wholly or in part by the tribe employ more than 1,000 persons and generate $30 million in work a year. The tribe's unemployment rate has been slashed dramatically, and young people now have a reason for staying on the reservation.

Sadly, the more familiar story of the American Indian was found in a companion article by Times staff writer Louis Sahagun. Sahagun wrote of poverty, illness, racism, alcoholism, exploitation and despair among the 7,500 members of the Crow tribe who live on a 2-million-acre reservation near the Custer battlefield in southern Montana.

The Crow fought on Custer's side and wound up with some of the best grazing and recreational lands given to any of the Plains Indians. The Cheyenne, who joined the Sioux in defeating Custer, were sent to much poorer land to the east. In many ways the plight of the Cheyenne is even worse than that of the Crow. The Choctaw story, of course, is not the only example of economic success among Indian tribes in the United States. Tribes are experimenting with a variety of methods of attracting capital for business ventures in efforts to achieve economic independence.

But the overwhelming evidence is that official U.S. attempts to "help" the Indian seem to be little more successful today than when the first formal program was launched with the Indian Act in 1790. A recent Interior Department study on the economic condition of reservation Indians found that 41% lived below the poverty level, with adult male unemployment at more than 50%. Among the Crow, unemployment is 85%. The situation is exacerbated in the West because of depression in the petroleum, coal and timber industries.

Because of budget restraints and policy changes, federal spending on assistance and maintenance programs for the country's Indians has declined more than 4% in constant dollars since 1981. The status of Indian health continues to be a national disgrace.

Not all of this is the government's fault. Even the best-intentioned and -financed federal Indian program can become fraught with controversy among Indians as well as non-Indians. Nearly 500 years after Europeans first came to America's shores, there is no consensus about what is best for the Indians: assimilation into society, isolation on reservations as a means of preserving Indian culture, language and religion, or something in between.

Disputes over Indian programs are particularly difficult to resolve. Tribes, and factions within tribes, often disagree on the role that government should take in their lives. Seldom is there an obvious solution or a situation in which there is a clear right way or wrong way.

What is certain, however, is that the problem does not receive the urgent attention and sensitivity that it deserves, either from the federal government or from the people at large. With conditions as desperate as they are on most reservations, Gramm-Rudman should not be used as an excuse to reduce programs. Total dependence on government is not the answer. But neither is the Administration view that anti-poverty programs are useless because they have not led to "viable Indian economies."

There must be a greater effort to understand Indian cultures and the unique problems involved in adapting them to traditional American economic principles. Suzan Brown Harjo, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, says: "People in policy-making positions tend to think that ultimately what will help us is for us to be mainstreamed, to become like white people. That is neither our goal nor a possibility."

It may be glib to talk of broken treaties and promises, trails of tears, the massacres of Indian men, women and children and the theft of the land from a proud people. Some may argue that all that is in the past. But the American Indian suffers from that legacy even today.

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