Denver — American Indian spokesmen say the Reagan administration's budget cuts, if enacted, will cut the ground out from under Native American attempts to overcome social and economic adversity just as many programs are beginning to make significant headway.
Elmer Savilla of the National Tribal Chairmen's Association recalled at a meeting of Indian leaders last month that 40 years ago actor Ronald Reagan played the movie role of George Armstrong Custer, the general who fought Western tribes until he and his force were massacred at the Little Big Horn.
"There is an awful lot in his budget that looks like Custer resurrected," said Mr. Savilla.
It appears that the administration's vigorous wielding of its fiscal ax, inadvertently or otherwise, will lead to hard times in Indian country unless Congress takes remedial action.
"Absolutely devasting" is how Suzan Harjo of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) characterizes Mr. Reagan's proposed cutbacks. She has analyzed the implications of the budget proposals for the nation's reservations.
The administration, Ms. Harjo calculates, would cut overall support for reservation Indians 34 percent by slashing more than $1 billion from the fiscal 1982 budget:
"Thus, Indian programs, which account for only 0.4 percent of the total federal budget, would absorb nearly 3 percent of the national budget cut," she says, adding that this is 10 times their fair share on a per capita basis.
Because American Indians have the lowest average income, the highest unemployment rate, the lowest level of education, shortest lives, and worst health conditions of any group in the US, they consider such a federal pullback totally unacceptable.
"I'm not surprised in the least that they are unhappy," says Edwin L. Dale Jr., assistant director for public affairs at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). "On the other hand, federal support for the average Indian family of four is $12,000 ayear, higher than any other group. It all depends on how you look at it -- whether the glass is half empty or half full."
Like other segments of American society, the nation's Indians will have to accept cutbacks because of the current "budget emergency," he says.
The NARF budget analysis finds that:
* Reservation housing programs would be cut 96 percent despite the fact that 60 percent of Indian housing is substandard. Mr. Dale explains that the reason for this is that the program was inefficient, the average cost of a house running at $80,000. Also, there are 15,000 houses "in the pipeline" he points out. But he declined to comment when asked whether proposed cutbacks in sanitation and sewer funds would make it impossible to complete these units.
* Economic development programs would suffer an 82 percent reduction, jeopardizing recent progress toward self-sufficiency made on a number of reservations. The OMB says it has slated only a one-third reduction in this area. "We are only talking about $62 million. Can you tell me that this is going to make the Indians economically self-sufficient?" Dale asks.
* Employment and training programs would be pared by 45 percent, boosting the current Indian unemployment rate of 39 percent by as much as 20 points.
* Funding for sewer and sanitation systems, as well as other health facilities, would be reduced by 82 percent, despite the fact that a number of reservations have serious sanitation problems and that such cuts would leave new houses without running water and sanitary facilities. "If we still lived in tepees and hogans, it wouldn't be a problem," says Ms. Harjo with heavy irony.
* Federal support for energy resource management on the reservations would be slashed 46 percent. While less than 10 percent of the nation's 400-odd Indian tribes are sitting on substantial energy and mineral resources, those who are have been counting heavily on these resources to gain economic self-sufficiency. However, they have lacked the technical and financial expertise to deal with the sophisticated energy and resource corporations or to develop these resources themselves.
Under the Carter administration, the US government began providing substantial support for tribal efforts to control resource development. Under Reagan's budget, the remainder of the money would revert to Department of Interior resource inventory and leasing programs, precluding federal support for tribes wishing to go into joint ventures and other, more ambitious and profitable resource development plans.
* Abolition of the Legal Services Corporation, which provides free legal service to the nation's poor, would eliminate such services on the nation's reservations.
The Senate Select Committee for Indian Affairs recently issued a report analyzing the effects of Reagan's budget cuts on Indian programs. According to a committee staff member, this is a program-by-program rather than a comprehensive analysis of the sort attempted by NARF.
The Senate study finds that in programs specifically identified as Indian, such as the budget of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the cuts are more modest than the figures compiled by NARF: ranging from 13 to 20 percent. However, the committee confirms that certain programs -- the Indian Housing and Sanitary Facilities Service, in particular -- have been zeroed out.
"The worst cuts are in programs of general applicability that have an Indian component," says one committee staffer, who prefers not to be identified. He believes that, in many cases, the administration simply did not understand the implications of their proposals for the nation's Indians.
For example, the administration proposes to eliminate Titles II and VI of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). At its peak, some 10,000 Indians were employed under this measure. As this program is reduced, many of the workers are returning to BIA general assistance.
To partially offset the effects of cutbacks of programs such as CETA, the Reagan administration has proposed giving the states more money in the form of block grants. However, it is not at all clear how Indians, with their special legal status, could participate in these programs.
"If you leave out housing, special Indian programs have been cut only 10 percent, less than most others," the OMB's Dale maintains, adding that this does not include the millions of dollars in court settlements awarded various tribes recently and the even larger amounts pending.
Peter MacDonald, chairman of the Navajos, says he would not mind seeing even greater budget cuts at the BIA. But he is decries program cutbacks that he believes will cripple tribal efforts to gain self-sufficiency.