ALBUQUERQUE — At a historic summit held in the heart of Indian country, Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. on Friday urged 1,100 tribal leaders to help him reform the nation's failed Indian policies.
Lujan announced a plan to remove control of the ulcerating Indian school system from the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs, proposed a 34% budget increase for Indian programs in 1992 and asked the crowd of chiefs and other leaders to join him in restructuring the bureau.
The key to Lujan's platform is the philosophy of self-determination in which the federal government would maintain its historic trust protection of Indian land but tribes would make budget decisions, approve projects and develop their resources largely without approval from the BIA.
"You can provide far better insight into the needs of your people than anyone from Washington can," Lujan told the leaders. "I know that."
If he makes it work, Lujan's reforms would be the first significant overhaul of the BIA. The widely criticized agency has presided over the loss of Indian waterways, drained dry by ranchers, has backed private contracts that still pay tribes a fraction of the going rate for their coal and oil, and has overseen the sale of Indian lands to private corporations at bargain prices.
Today, the nation's 1 million Indians, represented by 510 tribes, are the poorest minority group in the country. At some reservations, life expectancy is about 50 years.
"We've heard from our inspector general, the General Accounting Office, from Congress, from a special investigating committee and from you on the current state of Indian affairs," Lujan said. "Everybody says things are not good, we can do better. I agree."
Lujan received a surprisingly warm if cautious response at what was only the second such summit between a Cabinet member and national Indian leaders in modern times.
"What I hear could be very good but what if Bush loses in the next couple of years and Lujan gets booted--what happens to restructuring then?" asked Thomas Boyd of the Navajo Nation Council.
Others urged Lujan to focus his reform efforts on removing longtime bureaucrats who control local area offices of the BIA.
"You can put on clean socks but the feet continue to stink unless you wash them," said J. T. Goombi, chairman of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma.
Lujan's proposals included:
--Creating a Bureau of Indian Education outside the BIA. The bureau's goal would be to raise education levels to the national norm by the year 2000.
--Disentangling the post of assistant secretary of Indian affairs from daily management operations. Lujan would fill a long-empty top manager's post. Currently, the assistant secretary is both a policy maker and a manager, the only such arrangement in the Interior Department.
--Boosting the contracting powers of tribes by attaching fewer strings to federal funds.
--Signing self-governance contracts with individual tribes, granting them great latitude in deciding how to spend their funds. Already, seven tribes have signed on for a demonstration project and talks are under way with 30 others.
Many tribal leaders voiced fear that a pared down BIA might be unable to perform its trust role in protecting Indian assets. Developing tribes said they need legal protection and technical advice as they move into unfamiliar business ventures.
"How is that little agency going to carry that load?" asked Hopi Jerry Honawa. "It sounds like you're taking a load off an American-sized truck and sticking it on a Toyota."
When asked how he could hope for a 34% budget increase in 1992 when the coming year's budget is the object of intense negotiations in Washington amid talk of a recession and cutbacks, Lujan responded: "We'll get the most we can. You work with what you have but we have always been very successful in persuading Congress when it comes to Indian affairs. Thirty-four percent may be high, but we'll hit as close as we can to it."
He said the bulk of the funds would go to educational programs for Indians.