To be sure, not all tribes are dependent on federal money. Some have found fortunes in reservation gambling. Bingo parlors and casinos have bloomed like the yucca across Native American lands. Experts estimate the Native American gambling industry is a $6 billion-a-year venture.
But many tribes, like the Navajos here, the largest community of Native Americans in the United States, disdain those kinds of profits. They fear the ills that can accompany gambling are not worth the risk for Native American societies already depressed with other societal problems.
"We got the bingo and a casino, but who knows what will come with the money," said Richard Angulo, a Chumash spiritual leader in California who remains skeptical about his tribe's future.
In fact, a lot of what is good in America has passed the Native Americans by. The litany reads like a modern-day Trail of Tears:
* According to the 1990 Census, a third of the 1.8 million Native Americans, including Eskimos and Aleuts, in the United States live below the poverty level. For every $100 earned by a U.S. family, a Native American household brings in $62. The per capita income for a Native American living on the reservation is less than $5,000 a year.
* Just under half of those older than 25 and living on the reservation are high school dropouts. Among teen-agers, the suicide rate is four times higher than all other ethnic groups in America.
* More than a quarter of the Native American families are headed by women with no husbands. One in five families lives in a home with no toilet or telephone.
* In 1993, the Indian Health Service found that Native American tuberculosis rates exceeded all other ethnic groups by 400%, and by more than 900% over whites. The mortality rate for diabetes exceeds the national average by 139%. Native Americans also are four times more likely to die of alcoholism than other groups in the United States, and the fetal alcohol syndrome rate is six times the national average.
Against this backdrop, federal assistance has been steadily decreasing.
Washington spent $3.4 billion in 1991 on Native Americans, up $700 million from the year before. But when that figure is adjusted for inflation, it is nearly 40% less than the dollars allocated 20 years ago.
And as Washington attempts sweeping changes this year in the way it deals with Native Americans, tribal leaders remain skeptical about whether the government has their best interests at heart. Since the last of the great Western tribes were moved onto the reservations at the end of the 19th Century, more than 300 treaties with the tribes have been broken.
"After they get through with all of their promises and all of their bureaucracies, what does it all come down to for the people?" asked Martin, the Navajo elder who by midafternoon was finally stirring awake in his hogan after the spring ritual held the night before.
"Nothing but crumbs."
The first round of congressional measures cut deep.
The House, in earmarking reductions in federal programs from last year, voted to knock off, among other things, $1.5 million from Special Tribal Court programs on the reservations, $6.4 million from the Native American Job Training Program and $1.3 billion--total elimination--from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance initiative.
In the Senate, lawmakers would take almost $6 million from BIA education, housing and general operations programs.
A conference of House and Senate members will meet in the coming months to reconcile the proposed cuts. Also on the table will be more than $40 million slashed from a series of Native American museum projects, including a National Museum of the Native American proposed for prominent display on the Washington Mall.
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), long an advocate of Native American assistance and a major promoter of the national museum, noted with underscored irony that there are more than 300 statues gracing the nation's capital, yet none commemorates a Native American. "I think this rather strange and obscene."
He and others decry wholesale cutting of Native American programs and urge instead the adoption of concrete plans to reshape the roles of the government and the tribes.
Dr. Michael H. Trujillo, assistant surgeon general and director of the Indian Health Service, recently told Congress that it is "imperative that the IHS manage its resources efficiently."
But he also warned that wholesale reductions "will, without a doubt, affect our resources and, ultimately, the delivery of health care."
To get around the political hazards of blindly cutting programs, some Washington officials favor turning general assistance over to the states in the form of block grants. They are weighing the idea of either having the states handle block grants for Native Americans living within their borders or fashioning the Native American programs into a kind of special "51st state" with block grants paid directly to the tribes.