`GREAT nations, like great men, should keep their word.'' President Bush was talking about foreign policy when he spoke those words in his inaugural address, but the original quotation came from an opinion by Justice Hugo Black concerning a unique domestic matter - the federal government's relationship with the American Indians.
The government's obligations to the Indians are embodied in the policy of ``Indian self-determination'' - federal encouragement of tribal self-government. Thanks to the efforts of many conscientious tribal leaders, that policy has had many successes. But its execution has all too often been flawed, both in Washington and at the grass roots.
The Senate Special Committee on Investigations of the Select Committee on Indian Affairs discovered in recent hearings that the federal government has again failed to fulfill its promise to the Indians. The Interior and Justice Departments have not adequately represented the legal interests of the Indian in court, while the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and other agencies entrusted with administering Indian programs have - by their own admission - failed in their responsibility.
For example, minority contracting programs administered by the BIA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are beset with fraudulent ``front'' companies that claim to be Indian-owned, but are actually run by non-Indians who receive most of the profits. In just eight months our committee uncovered 19 fronting arrangements, while the BIA has managed to decertify only two companies in the last 31 years. HUD's Office of Indian Housing, which lets some $148 million a year in Indian-preference contracts, has never disqualified a front company.
The BIA has also been grossly negligent in dealing with child sexual abuse in reservation schools. A teacher with a history of child sexual abuse was hired at a BIA school and continued molesting eight- to 12-year-old boys for 14 years, despite repeated allegations from parents, school staff, and former employers.
As with other child sexual-abuse cases we investigated, BIA officials were never disciplined for failing to report these complaints. A principal who refused to take action against the teacher was promoted to the central office in Washington, and the BIA superintendent in charge was transferred to the Hopi reservation, where another teacher was found to have molested 142 children over an eight-year period.
Governmental irresponsibility is not limited to the federal agencies. On some reservations, corrupt tribal officials engage in self-dealing and demand kickbacks. Navajo chairman Peter MacDonald, the elected leader of the largest tribal government in America, profited personally when his tribe purchased a 491,000-acre ranch in 1987. Both the chairman's son and a Phoenix businessman who negotiated the deal testified - and were corroborated by secret tape recordings - that Mr. MacDonald helped promote the tribe's purchase of the ranch at a vastly inflated price, in exchange for a share of the profits.
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate on the Navajo reservation is 40 percent. The poverty rate on the reservations is four times the national average. Sixteen percent of the Indian houses on reservations lack electric lighting, 21 percent lack an indoor toilet, and more than half have no telephone. Every tax dollar wasted by an incompetent administrator or diverted by a corrupt official ultimately hurts the living standard of an Indian family.
Congress should take its responsibility more seriously. Some needed remedies:
Congress has mandated that all 50 states have child-abuse reporting laws. We should impose similar requirements for BIA schools.
Congress passed the Buy Indian Act in 1910, but the BIA has never issued final regulations on Indian preference. We should provide federal and tribal officials with the laws, regulations, or enforcement procedures necessary to make the Indian contracting program successful.
Congress has enacted federal criminal statutes prohibiting gratuities and conflicts of interest for federal, state, and local officials. We should care enough to apply similar safeguards to tribal governmental officials.
In 1970, President Nixon set out the federal policy of Indian self-determination by stating: ``We must make it clear that Indians can become independent of federal control without being cut off from federal concern and federal support.'' Now is the time for Congress, federal agencies, and tribal governments to demand accountability and integrity in all Indian programs. Only by doing so can we truly keep our word and avoid the waste of Indian opportunity and taxpayers' dollars.