Tribe seeks to preserve culture amid prosperity

JEFF Sanders, thinking back to his boyhood, says he lived with his family ``in one room with four walls, a dirt floor, and a ceiling.'' He remembers that a smoky wood fire was always burning, even in midsummer, because his father liked a hot meal every day.

In two generations, all that has changed. Housing here rivals that of middle-class America. It is a direct benefit of economic development on the reservation, says Mr. Sanders, who now works for the tribal government.

Leaders here are proud that the tribe -- and not the federal government -- was able to build modern housing for its members. ``The quality of our homes is much better than what is built by HUD [the US Department of Housing and Urban Development],'' says Mike Clements, assistant secretary-treasurer of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation. This reservation is at the top of the Reagan administration's list of those that fit its model for economic self-sufficiency.

Tribal businesses here pay at least 70 percent of an annual operating budget of between $19 million and $21 million, says Lynn Engles of the Administration of Native Americans (ANA) in the US Department of Health and Human Services. The federal government pays the remaining 20 to 30 percent.

Progress toward economic viability began in 1942, with the signing of a 20-year contract allowing a private company to harvest reservation timber. In 1967 the tribe bought a sawmill and plywood plant to process the Douglas fir and ponderosa pine that cover half of the 600,000-acre reservation.

The tribe was helped along by a $4 million settlement with the federal government in 1958. The payment was compensation for loss of cultural and fishing sites flooded when the US Army Corps of Engineers built The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River. Some of the $4 million was distributed to individual tribal members, but most was saved for future investment.

After conducting a comprehensive survey of reservation resources, leaders began to use these funds, as well as proceeds from the timber contract, to diversify the tribe's economic base.

Today the Warm Springs tribe also owns a hydropower generator on the Deschutes River, Kah-nee-tah resort and convention lodge, a garage, and a commercial radio station. Diversification has helped cushion the tribe against the effects of a five-year downturn in the timber industry, tribal officers say.

The US census puts median family income on the reservation at $16,434, although tribal leaders say the figure may have slipped a bit in recent years. Warm Springs is one of the few tribes that has been able to afford to distribute per capita payments to its members -- about $1,200 a year to every man, woman, and child.

But economic development has not solved all problems at Warm Springs. Alcohol abuse has been as serious here as elsewhere in Indian country. The tribe has worked to address it and is seeing some improvement, Mr. Sanders says. And problems with young tribe members have leaders worried. Half of them drop out of the district high school before they graduate, Sanders says, and they seem to be dropping out of life at home as well.

``The young people are losing interest in the traditional ways -- going to the long house or taking part in the huckleberry feast,'' Sanders says. ``Our seniors know that if we are to progress economically, we must have educated members. But the values taught in school, the values the children come back with, those values [the senior tribe members] disagree with.''

Maxine Switzler says she has taught her seven children to be proud to be Indian while doing ``what's expected of them outside [the reservation].'' An accomplished beadworker, she has taught the art to her two grown daughters and will teach her granddaughters when they are a little older.

Jim Manion, acting power superintendent of the hydroelectric project, speaks of trying to attain ``balance and harmony'' between cultural values and development efforts. This is just the sort of evaluation that Indian tribes all across the country need to do, says ANA commissioner Engles. He expects that eventually ``tribes themselves will create a model that will combine Indian culture and the free-enterprise system.'' The federal government, he adds, is ``asking tribes to make as significant a change as we did when we moved them onto reservations.''

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