Mineral wealth will help US Indians overcome cuts in aid

The Americans hit hardest and yet remaining the calmest about Reagan budget cuts may turn out to be the nation's 1 million Native Americans. Indians expect an overall 20-to-25 percent cut in funding for Indian programs. And they expect the cuts to hurt. Because of low income levels in Indian communities, nationwide cuts in food stamp, child nutrition, education, health, housing, legal aid, and other programs will hit Indians particularly hard.

Yet Indians are reacting calmly to sudden shifts not only in funding levels but in program directions.

One reason for calm lies with experience.

Indians attending a 1954 University of Chicago conference on the government's Indian policies concluded that "Over the years, the Indian can expect no consistency in policies regarding him. No matter what policy is today, tomorrow it will be different -- even opposite. . . . The interests of the dominant society will take precedence over the interests of Indians in any policy decision; Indian interests will be considered only when they coincide with or at least do not contradict 'white' interests."

Another reason for calm may be that the Indians' remaining 50 million acres of land contain vast energy reserves, probably including more than half of US uranium deposits. With an energy-rich future to bank on, present sacrifices may seem easier to bear.

A third reason is that after a series of court battles, Native Americans are increasingly ready and able to demand recognition of their treaty rights.

One example of what is happening to Native Americans is at the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota. This 5,337-square-mile reservation is just a tiny fragment of tribal lands that once stretched from the Mississippi to the Rockies. Successive treaties and court decisions whittled away the Sioux lands, with the latest shrinkage taking effect in 1977. But 15,000 Brule Sioux, or Lakotas, remain, tucked into rolling countryside that includes 3,200 acres of irrigated cropland along with well-managed forests and good grazing for more than 2,000 tribally-owned cattle.

The Lakotas remain, still proud of their history of "fighting white encroachment."

The encroachment threat remains, too, on many fronts. Legal battles continue over water rights, land, claims, and representation at local, state, and national levels.

The most immediate challenge is the Reagan budget, with its threat to the Rosebud Sioux tribe's $16 million budget. The tribe's elected president, Norman Wilson, accepts that "we are going to have to absorb a 25 percent cut." He and his elected tribal council have begun the difficult process of deciding where to cut. Under the Reagan administration's new block-grant approach, which gives new priority-setting powers to the tribes, says Mr. Wilson, the tribe is left with the problem of "How are you going to put priority on health when we need more for education, or how are you going to put priority on education when you need more employment?"

So the Lakotas along with some 200 other tribal governments across the country are preparing for cuts. But they are also preparing to fight back.

Between trips to Washington, Rosebud administrative assistant Francis Whitebird explained that "Yes, we could probably take our fair share of the budget cuts. But when the government eliminates programs specifically designed for Native Americans, we are not going to tolerate it. We will take legal action to enforce our treaty rights."

Indian say that there have been two conflicting views of the treaty-based trust relationship between tribes and the federal government.

One view shared by many taxpayers and congressmen have been that the government's Indian programs are paternalistic subsidies for an underdeveloped people. This view is reflected by a government official who told the Monitor that "it is obvious that the federal government can't do everything. . . . These tribal governments have got to become business managers, they have got to come to be in charge of their own destiny, to make those decisions necessary to become economically independent."

The Indian view is that the US government is bound under firm treaty obligations not only to protect Indian lands but to provide proper housing, education, health care, employment, and o ther programs for Indians. According to this view, some Reagan budget cuts affecting Indians breach treaty obligations and so can be challenged in court.

This "obligation" view of the trust relationship finds support on the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs. This committee has responded to proposed budget cuts in one area by voting $50 million to continue funding an estimated 10,000 CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) jobs needed on Indian reservations across the country. Otherwise, these jobs, already affected by a hiring freeze, would disappear under the Reagan administration plan to end the CETA jobs program nationwide.

"The CETA cuts seemed to be biggest problem facing the reservations," says Indian Affairs Committee minority counsel Max Ritchman, "because unemployment is already 50 to 80 percent and in some places the only jobs they have are CETA jobs."

Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesman Carl Shaw hopes that Congress will come up with other special programs. He points out that the $1 billion bureau budget is targeted only for $75.9 million in cuts. But he feels that Indians will be hit harder than non-indians by cuts in other programs such as CETA and food stamps.

Mr. Shaw expects larger, energy-rich reservations to look after their own interests well. But he sees a continuing need to fulfill treaty obligations nationwide, with additional support for reservations that may have only a few hundred Native Americans -- and no uranium or oil.

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