WHEN James Watt called Indian reservations ``examples of the failures of socialism,'' he created tension between tribal leaders and the Reagan administration that still lingers. Mr. Watt was the United States secretary of the interior when he made that statement, and administration of Indian affairs was part of his broad domain.
His remark deepened tribal suspicion that the real intent of administration policy was, in the words of one Indian leader, ``to allow the corporate interests and the various states to acquire Indian-owned natural resources.''
Five percent of the land in the US is Indian country. More than a third of the nation's strippable coal, half of its known uranium deposits, huge timber stands, and up to 10 percent of US oil and gas reserves are in Indian reservations.
But neither the resources nor the ability to take advantage of them are evenly distributed among native American tribes. Some reservations have abundant energy resources; others have none. Few tribes with resources have the expertise or money to develop them. Leases with energy companies have proved profitable for some tribes and disastrous for others.
Land is a spiritual as well as an economic resource for Indian people, who weigh both aspects when considering a development project. Even those Indians who echo the Reagan administration's insistence on economic independence state flatly that there will never be full-fledged capitalism on reservations.
Tribes are communal societies that hold the relationship between land and people to be sacred, explains Chockie Cottier of the Corporation for American Indian Development. To be acceptable to Indian people, business development must benefit the community directly, she says. ``Each tribe must examine its own resources and find its own way.
The articles on this page describe how two tribes are, step by step, finding their way.