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This Matter of Direction

March 26, 1989

One anecdote, told by a prominent student of the Navajos, helps explain how the federal government's good intentions toward Native Americans often turn sour. When a new health clinic was built in the Arizona portion of the Navajo reservation, the government took pains to decorate it with Navajo art. The project even included construction of an adjacent hogan, the traditional Navajo home that also serves as a place of worship. One dictum of the Navajo religion is that the door of the hogan always faces the dawning sun.

"But the door did not face east!" exclaimed the observer. Furthermore, the hogan was built with a tile floor. This made it impossible to conduct the dry painting--commonly known as sand painting--that is part of the Navajo healing ceremony. Dry painting must be done on a hogan's dirt floor.

The incident seems insignificant when compared with the horror stories of alleged corruption and mismanagement that have emerged from recent U.S. Senate hearings into the administration of tribal affairs and federal programs. But it demonstrates the lack of sensitivity and attention to detail that is so critical if the United States is to have a workable Indian policy.

During the first phase of the hearings, a panel of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs was dominated by sensational stories of opulent spending, shakedowns and kickbacks involving Navajo Chairman Peter MacDonald Sr. But the committee's most important work is still ahead. That is to determine how the government can fulfill its responsibility to help tribes without overly dominating their affairs, or dooming them through neglect to perpetual poverty, poor health and dismal education.

Much of the recrimination has been directed at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, with claims that of every $10 the Interior Department agency spends, only about $1 actually aids tribal members. But part of the problem is the fragmentation of Indian-assistance programs through a variety of agencies. There is no clear accountability and fixing of responsibility. This is difficult to achieve while providing aid and retaining tribal sovereignty, but it is certainly not impossible.

The credibility of the Bureau of Indian Affairs is such a shambles that the bureau must be replaced by a new agency outside the Interior Department. As former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt notes, the bureau is lost in the halls of Interior with no real political power. Also, having the bureau within Interior creates an inherent conflict over the valuable natural resources on tribal lands.

On one hand, Interior's Bureau of Land Management and allied agencies are attempting to exploit the resources for the profit of private firms. On the other, BIA is supposed to be protecting tribal interests. The Bureau of Indian Affairs rarely prevails, as was documented in a series of articles in the Arizona Republic in the fall of 1987. The series is credited with prompting the Senate investigation.

Tribal sovereignty is critical, although it often is sorely tested by intra-tribal political rivalries. Strong tribal councils are needed to balance the power of the tribal chairmen. With an effective new agency in Washington working with effective tribal governments, federal aid could be allocated in the form of block grants that do not require micromanagement by bureaucrats on the Potomac.

Congress needs to keep the issue prominently on its agenda until the current mess is corrected. And Congress then needs to keep the issue on its agenda thereafter to make certain that U.S. Indian policy does not just slip into another cycle of hope leading to despair, mismanagement and scandal. And to make certain the hogan door faces the dawn at all times.

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