BOSTON — WITH a skepticism born of centuries of neglect and broken treaties, nearly 2 million American Indians will be leaning forward to see if new federal action will follow familiar words of promise.
In addition to a historic gathering between 300 tribal chiefs and President Clinton at the White House on April 29, Indian leaders also met with United States Attorney General Janet Reno and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt at a two-day ``listening conference'' last week in Albuquerque, N.M.
``Just meeting with us suggests a major difference from the past,'' said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Kallam tribe in Sequim, Wash., who attended the Albuquerque conference. ``It's been easy to overlook us as little fish in the big pond of Washington, but I think the administration is trying to design a better mission and process. We told them what needs to be fixed.''
Also, by the end of September, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is scheduled to have completed 23 meetings with tribes across the country aimed at improving housing and living conditions.
Some Indian leaders are skeptical of how forcefully the president can change the habits of agencies that deal with Indian matters.
But Mr. Clinton did recognize and encourage a fundamental change taking place now on many reservations: self-governance. He reaffirmed to American Indians is the historic relationship between the tribes and the US government.
All Indian reservations and recognized tribes have a unique legal status with Washington; they are nations within a nation and are recognized now to have virtually autonomous control over their own economic and political destinies.
``Our first principle must be to respect your right to remain who you are,'' the president said.
Clinton's meeting with the Indians was triggered by Ms. Reno, who met some months ago with Wilma Mankiller, chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, and Peterson Zah, president of the Navajos in Arizona. ``We were concerned about crime and justice on reservations,'' said George Bearpaw, executive director of the tribal operations for the Cherokee Nation, ``and wanted some help from Reno.''
THE attorney general discussed these and other Indian issues with the president, who suggested a meeting with tribal chiefs at the White House.
Within the US and tribal relationship, Clinton recognized that what needs to be fixed are a host of issues and problems across the health, educational, environmental, and political spectrum.
``Sometimes federal agencies don't understand the trust relationship the federal government has with the tribes,'' said Pliny McCovey, vice-chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe in northern California, ``but Clinton's new directive will help change this.''
This directive, signed at the White House meeting, requires every executive department and agency of the federal government to ``remove all barriers that prevent them from working directly with tribal governments,'' and to consult with tribes before taking actions ``affecting tribal trust resources.''
The intent of the directive is to publicly support sovereignty by acknowledging that all federal agencies must recognize a trust responsibility, not just those mandated to do so: the Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
``I think the president was saying to the agencies, `Here, you take responsibility too now,''' says Mr. Allen, ```and remove some of the bureaucratic impediments inconsistent with the tribes status as nations.
``Let Indians help create laws and policies that affect them.' ''
Started six years ago, the Tribal Self-Governance Project allowed 30 tribes to bypass the entrenched, slow-moving bureaucracy of the BIA, and negotiate federal contracts directly with a separate office in the Department of the Interior. ``It ends paternalism,'' says Allen, ``and transfers funds and responsibility to the tribes. ``We have more control over our destiny,'' McCovey says.
The president also endorsed gambling on reservations, and in the last decade more than 80 tribes around the country have profited from it.
``Now many tribes can diversify and invest,'' Allen said. ``[Gambling's] not the panacea to our problems, but it is useful now.''