Seeking self-sufficiency. Finding paths to participation in the complex US economy of the late 20th century while retaining their traditional link with the natural world is not easy for native Americans. But with newly determined leadership, recovery of confidence lost in battles decades ago, and some help from Washington, many are well into the process.

STANDING on the edge of the mesa, watching a flaming sun dip below the desert floor, one has a sense of timelessness. Up here the adobe houses, bleached by the sun, crop out of the sandstone as if they were meant to be a part of the landscape.

Acoma legend has it that there existed a place ready for the people to occupy, and their migration here fulfilled a prophecy. Archaeologists estimate that the village has been occupied since the year 1150, making it the oldest continuously inhabited location in the United States.

Only a half-dozen families now live year-round on the mesa. Most people of the pueblo live on the valley floor, in standard housing with modern conveniences. The two groups symbolize a society that is trying to live in two worlds -- striking a delicate balance between the values of the old and the demands of the new.

From the Reagan administration in Washington comes the demand that Indian tribes throughout the US decrease their dependence on federal aid by increasing economic development on the reservations.

Here at Pueblo de Acoma, as in much of the rest of Indian country, reaction to these demands ranges from approval to suspicion.

``Our tribe isn't saying we can't be self-sufficient, but [in economic development] we're still 20 years behind the times,'' says William Estevan, first lieutenant governor at Acoma. The 4,000-member tribe, traditionally an agrarian people, has recently begun to plan for long-term development -- spurred not only by federal spending cuts, but also by the 1982 closing of a local uranium mine that had employed about 100 Acoma men. Businesses established

The tribe raises cattle, owns and operates a new bingo hall, has built a laundromat and convenience store, bought a gasoline station alongside Interstate 40, and is considering constructing a motel that would employ between 10 and 20 tribe members.

But Acoma officials say they need time to develop businesses -- and seed money to get them started. And there is suspicion that the federal government is trying to deemphasize its obligations to Indians.

``People say that the Indians are too lazy, that they don't have to work because they get funds from the federal government every month,'' says Stanley Paytiamo, governor of the Acoma pueblo. ``But we're not getting something for nothing. What the non-Indian world has to understand is that they stole our land.''

Mr. Estevan adds, ``We were guaranteed [by treaty] free education, free medical care, free everything. They've got to live up to that.''

No single document defines the federal government's trust responsibility to native Americans. A series of acts of Congress, executive orders, 19th-century treaties, and US Supreme Court decisions form the basis for the government's legal responsibilities -- which in many cases include health care and education in addition to the protection of land and natural resources.

Indian people themselves disagree over the definition of the trust responsibility, but on one point they stand united. In more than a dozen interviews with Indian leaders on reservations and in cities, every one said the federal government had proved to be an incompetent administrator of that trust.

After a century of looking to Washington for protection, Indians today have the lowest life expectancy, highest rates of alcoholism and suicide, and highest rate of unemployment of any group in the nation. Median family income is $12,256, or about two-thirds of the median $17,680 earned by white families, according to the 1980 census. More than half of Indian housing is labeled substandard, mostly because it has no indoor plumbing. Time to take initiative

Increasingly, Indian leaders are saying the time has come for tribes themselves to take the initiative to provide for their people.

In the past 20 years native Americans have adopted an increasingly aggressive stance on many new fronts. Sometimes progress has come with the help of government agencies. In other instances Indians are making strides without, and even in spite of, the federal government.

In court. From water-rights cases in the West to land-claims settlements on the Eastern Seaboard, Indian tribes are asserting their aboriginal rights over some of the country's most valuable resources.

In business. The number of businesses owned by tribes or individual Indians tripled between 1972 and '77 and doubled between 1977 and '83, according to the US Census Bureau. As is the case at Acoma, tribes are opening grocery stores, laundromats, restaurants, and other small businesses to keep dollars circulating on the reservation. Mineral-rich tribes are renegotiating leases on more-favorable terms or taxing companies that operate on the reservation. Other tribes are entering into contracts or joint ventures to manufacture everything from pencils to military supplies.

In hiring. The key to economic independence is for tribes to work with businesses on and off the reservation to hire, train, and promote tribal members, says Conrad D. Edwards of the Council for Tribal Employment Rights. Eighty-seven tribes now have ordinances that require Indian preference in hiring -- based not on race, but on the tribes' political sovereignty, he says. Still, unemployment ranges from 25 percent on the most prosperous reservations to 85 percent on the most depressed.

The Reagan administration, in a 1983 policy statement, embraced the concept of Indian self-determination. It also emphasized a need for economic self-sufficiency -- through private-sector investment, not government spending -- on the reservations.

The annual budget for Indian affairs was cut in 1981 by almost a third, from $3.5 billion to $2.5 billion. More cuts, which could reduce federal spending on Indian programs to as low as $1.7 billion, are in the wind for next fiscal year.

Ross Swimmer, new undersecretary for Indian affairs of the US Department of the Interior, says he has noticed ``a remarkable change in the attitude of the Indian leadership'' in the past five years. They want to chart a stable course, independent of the ups and downs of spending in Washington, he says.

Almost a century after the close of the Indian wars with the Sioux massacre at Wounded Knee, S.D., in December 1890, native Americans seem to be emerging from the shadow of defeat.

Indian leaders today want to prepare an orderly transition from dependence on the ``grants economy'' to self-sufficiency. But they cite two major obstacles: Many tribes have little to attract outsiders into business deals, and most native Americans lack business experience.

Chockie Cottier, executive director of the Corporation for American Indian Development in San Francisco, points out that, for the most part, the tribes got land the white man did not want.

They offer a relatively uneducated labor force and an undeveloped infrastructure, Ms. Cottier says. She adds that, although it is not impossible to attract private businesses to often-remote reservations, it's not easy, either.

For more than a century, Indians ``were never allowed to manage our own money,'' Cottier says, ``and, therefore, we never learned how to manage it. We don't know how to use our money to make money, or how to invest, save, and plan.'' More experience needed

After Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act in 1975, some tribes began to contract with the government to run federal programs themselves -- giving tribal members more opportunities than ever before to get management experience. But the need for experienced business people and managers is still acute.

There are as many roads to economic development as there are tribes. Some are well on their way; others are just starting out. The concern now is that Congress and the White House, in their determination to trim the federal deficit, will yank the safety net out from under all tribes at the same time.

``The United States has broken its contracts with Indian people, and the process is accelerating under the Reagan administration,'' Cottier says.

Indian lobbyists say budget cutters are aiming at the very programs, such as job training and the Small Business Administration, that could help tribes gain a competitive edge. ``If the federal government cuts back incentive programs, and we can't attract private capital to the reservation, then we have nothing,'' says Raymond Field, executive director of the National Tribal Chairmen's Association in Washington, D.C.

If pushed into a corner, Indian tribes will stand on their treaty rights, explains Mr. Field, a Pawnee from Oklahoma. The chairmen's association this week is hosting a convention in Washington to spotlight the government's treaty responsibilities. Swimmer sees opportunities

Mr. Swimmer, who heads the Bureau of Indian Affairs, says, ``Now is the time for us in Indian country to move forward and take some of those jobs the rest of the country is enjoying'' in today's favorable economic climate. ``What I ask, more than anything, is to have tribes look at the diversity of opportunity they have on their reservations.''

Swimmer says he has seen ``opportunities go begging'' on reservations that could use such businesses as shoe repair shops, car dealerships, and variety stores. But no one involved in Indian affairs expects tribes to become entirely independent of federal support.

``We don't expect the City of Seattle or the District of Columbia to become self-sufficient, and we can't expect tribes to be that, either,'' says Lynn Engles, commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans, an agency of the US Department of Health and Human Services. ``But tribes should think about ways to build their economic base on the reservation to provide revenue.''

Tribal leaders are pondering what type of life they will be leaving for their children. They wonder:

Will the Indians' communal societies wholeheartedly embrace capitalism, as the Reagan administration recommends?

Should tribes rely on their members for technical and business services or hire outside consultants, lawyers, and managers?

Will the Indians' culture erode if they adopt the white man's business ways? Or can they find a way to preserve native values?

Each tribe seeks its own answers to these questions, in accordance with the first tenet of Indian law -- that tribes are sovereign nations within the boundaries of a larger one.

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