AT 7:30 in the morning, Michael Fairbanks is correcting myths. ``Indians do not receive a check from the government once a month just because they are Indians,'' he says with a tolerant smile that means ``How many times do I have to say it?'' Mr. Fairbanks has been superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for five years, and before that for seven years at the Blackfeet reservation in Montana. ``Indians have been citizens of the United States since 1924,'' he says, seated in his office in the BIA building next to the Oglala Sioux tribal headquarters, ``and as such they are entitled to any benefits provided to all citizens.''
Thus, on the Pine Ridge reservation, where a 73 percent unemployment rate prevails, the highest anywhere in the United States, many tribal members are recipients of benefits from various federal, state, and a few tribal welfare programs. The popular stereotype is that all Indians receive a ``generic'' check at the first of the month, and blow it on alcohol, junk food, and old cars.
``We have become a very socialist people,'' suggests Randy Plume, executive director of the Oglala Sioux tribe. He is seated at the end of a conference table in tribal president Paul Iron Cloud's office. His statement is as much a reluctant admission as it is an inevitable conclusion based on the way the white man has treated Indians. ``Personally, I think [welfare] destroys initiative,'' Mr. Plume says. ``I don't like it, but here we are.''
No single historical factor is to blame for the squalid living conditions that exist for most Indians at Pine Ridge or for their dependence on government welfare: not liquor, as much as it dulls the spirit and pervades life on the reservation; and not the BIA, with which many Indians have a love-hate relationship.
But a key factor might well be the reservation land and how it is owned and administered. Land, and land use, is clearly linked to whether the tribe can ever achieve the goal of self-sufficiency. Pine Ridge covers about 2.7 million acres, an area larger than Rhode Island. Aside from some farming and ranching, few proven natural resources are available, but the tribe has yet to explore all the possibilities of land use.
Why does the land remain so important? As the Indian wars of the 19th century drew to a close, Congress shuttled Indians off to reservations. Later, under a 1904 act, individual Indians received acreage allotments.
Putting aside for the moment the impact of these forced changes on the spirit and well-being of Indians, the motive behind the plan was clear: termination. No more tribes, no more trouble. Congress wanted Indians to be farmers or ranchers.
The BIA was to oversee the land as a trustee. What happened over the years is an ownership nightmare. As Indian families have increased and land has passed from one generation to the next, or as parcels were sold to other Indians or to non-Indians, ownership has multiplied to the point of parody. ``A hundred people own interest in an acre,'' explains Pine Ridge superintendent Fairbanks, ``and some individuals may own a square foot.''
To do anything with the land - build on it, sell it, farm it - permission has to be granted from all owners. ``Even if an individual has a majority interest in the land,'' says superintendent Fairbanks, ``he has to get permission from all the others.''
Consequently, and despite the BIA's effort to keep track of the mess, there are thousands of tangled land cases. Often solutions are not sought. At the BIA offices at Pine Ridge, land records are kept on computers and administered by nine full-time employees.
Despite the best intentions of the BIA, the system hardly encourages maximum use of the land as a resource for people with great needs. Yet reservation land, troubled and limited as life on it may be, is still revered by many Indians as sacred homeland.
``Ten or 12 years ago when land was suddenly very valuable,'' says Fairbanks, ``some individuals who owned trust land wanted to sell it to non-Indians.'' Because Indians have so little else in assets or prospects, it is understandable why selling land was attractive.
Not wanting the tribal lands to shrink further, the tribal leadership quickly went to the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) and borrowed about $19 million to buy the land. If serious questions about the loans were raised then by the BIA, no one seems to remember them.
Several years later land values plummeted by as much as 45 percent. The tribe scrambled to pay the loans on schedule: $612,000 every six months. ``We missed only one payment,'' says Oglala leader Plume, indicating the tribe's willingness to meet its financial obligations.
Recently, at the insistence of Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D) of South Dakota, the US Congress forced the FmHA to reduce the loans to the current value of the land, thereby saving the tribe $7 million. ``The tribe came close to being broke,'' says superintendent Fairbanks. ``But I think it's more financially stable than it's probably been in a number of years.''
THE tribe derives income from a number of sources: excise taxes on construction projects, revenue from farm leases or business leases, and collections from range grazing, to cite the major ones. And the BIA supports various social programs at Pine Ridge totaling about $16 million.
``Unfortunately, economic development has a sordid history on most reservations,'' says Plume, describing several businesses that have failed at Pine Ridge, including an arrow manufacturing company and a quilt-making enterprise.
``Because reservations are desperate for economic opportunities,'' he says, ``any kind of business that comes along you're tempted to grab.'' Case studies show poor management, a thicket of government regulations, and poorly conceived business plans are often the causes of failures.
For years the human potential on reservations has been wasted and abused. The BIA is blamed for its ``colonial'' attitude; Indian leadership is blamed for corruption and mismanagement, and mostly Congress is blamed for failing to recognize the gravity of the problems and for not responding imaginatively and humanely with a ``Marshall Plan.''
Because Indians are often poorly educated and with little sophisticated management training, failure in business has become a habit, or much worse. Most Indians have no credit history or checking accounts.
At Senate hearings in January this year, Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona said that a year-long investigation had found that ``many of the federal Indian programs are fraught with corruption and fraud; most of the others are marred by mismanagement and incompetence.''
Oglala Sioux president Paul Iron Cloud says that he ``would like to see a [Oglala Sioux] task force do an overall study of the functions of the BIA to improve [its] ability to help us.''
Mr. Iron Cloud also supports the idea that the tribe should develop businesses on the reservation and provide services such as education and health care. Others within the tribal leadership think that the tribe's role ought to be to support individual entrepreneurial efforts by members.
``We're a government, not unlike the US government,'' says Plume, stating one side of the argument. ``Imagine if the US government started an airline. What would the reaction be? It seems to me our purpose is to provide services to the tribe and then encourage individuals to start businesses.''
Understandably, there aren't many entrepreneurs on the reservation at this point. The Lakota Fund, a small privately funded organization, offers unsecured loans of $1,000 or less to encourage small businesses. It has made 60 loans since 1986, with mixed results.
Yet there is no lack of willing workers. ``About 1,200 people applied for 50 jobs when a meat-packing plant opened near here a few years ago,'' says George White, a student counselor at Pine Ridge High School. ``What we need is lots of jobs, lots of opportunities.''
The tribe has two enterprises in development. A retired businessman from the Midwest is deciding whether or not to open a garment-making factory on the reservation; and a tribal delegation recently visited Japan to promote Japanese investment in farming, as well as in light industry, on the reservation.
The 14 members of the Oglala Truck Gardening Association, who raise vegetables, are using drip-irrigation technology from Israel in their experimental gardens. The association is trying to gain economic independence for its members while providing food for the reservation.
Such efforts toward self-sufficiency are the exception, not the norm. Most tribal members are jobless and poorly educated. To infuse the reservation with genuine hope, the leadership has to face and attack the the scourge of the reservation: alcohol.
Second in a series. Tomorrow: gaining momentum against alcohol.