IT would be a mistake to conclude from the fraud investigation being carried out by the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs that the problems are all on the reservations. That's what the allegations about corrupt tribal leaders, particularly those regarding Navajo chairman Peter MacDonald Sr., may seem to imply. In fact, the charges surrounding Mr. MacDonald are nothing new. A federal grand jury, as well as Congress, is looking into a land sale involving friends of MacDonald's and millions in Navajo funds. A campaign is being mounted to remove the chairman from office, and evidence coming to light in the congressional hearings, including damaging testimony from his son, indicates he should go.
But the central questions in this investigation should concern the relationship between the government agencies charged with overseeing economic development on Indian land and the tribes themselves.
For example, the committee is finding widespread use of ``front'' companies, ostensibly run by native Americans, to win construction contracts on the reservations. Federal law requires a preference for Indian-owned firms - and apparently any Indian, or third cousin of an Indian, ready to accept a fake title will do.
You'd think the federal officials okaying these arrangements would at the least check with a tribe to be sure a person is a member, as claimed. But even that step is sometimes neglected, according to Indian advocates.
Too often, federal money aimed at improving conditions on the reservations lines the pockets of non-Indian contractors instead. Similarly, the dollars generated by tribe-owned mineral and oil resources flow off the reservation, with Indians often getting only token royalties.
The Senate committee, however, was quick to shove the operations of energy companies on Indian land off its agenda.
Meanwhile, the blights of poverty, poor education, and poor health persist. Federal agencies, particularly the Bureau of Indian Affairs, have had little success in relieving them.
Exposing fraud among tribal leaders can be one step toward improving this picture. Economic development is another. But programs that work elsewhere don't necessarily work on the reservations. The same holds for educational theories. Bridges between America's prosperous majority and its 1.4 million Indians are few and fragile. Where economic development has worked, you're likely to find key tribe members who can merge an understanding of the outside world with the needs of their people.
Indians don't need a paternalistic master in Washington, but an active advocate for their rights - including the often controversial property rights spelled out in treaties and the right to tax companies that make money on the reservations. If the current hearings bring a clearer awareness of this, they're all to the good. If they only highlight the malfeasance of a few Indian leaders, they've missed the point.