A COLD, autumn night settles over the Mille Lacs, Minn., region. Headlights from cars traveling along rural highway 169 catch the first road sign, small and rusty at the edges, announcing the entrance to the reservation of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians.
Up ahead, around a slight curve, a bright, reddish glow suddenly paints the sky. Headlights are swallowed up by the light. Standing alone is another sign, a brute five-stories tall, dome-shaped with flashing neon and dazzling lights. Huge red letters proclaim ``GRAND CASINO.'' The sign is pure Las Vegas with no Las Vegas around it except for the casino sprawled just off the highway.
Near the top of the sign, a stylized pot of gold tilts to one side with gold coins spilling out. To the formerly impoverished Mille Lacs - owners of the casino - the symbol of a spilling pot of gold is not misplaced. But it's more like Fort Knox for the 2,500 tribal members.
``We will net about $10 million from gaming for fiscal '94,'' says Polly Williams, commissioner of finance for the Mille Lacs. This amount of money is now flowing to a tribe that as few as four years ago was gripped by unemployment hovering as high as 70 percent.
Another Mille Lacs casino 50 miles away is even bigger. Both were opened within the last two years. Both continue to attract thousands of gamblers from off the reservation.
But as gambling at Mille Lacs and dozens of other Indian reservations has mushroomed across the United States in the last few years, another little-known pot of gold is offering a far more valuable treasure to Indians.
This treasure is officially known as the Tribal Self-Governance Demonstration Project Act, passed into law by the United States Congress in 1987, but stalled in implementation until 1990.
The intent of this legislation is to disentangle tribes from the bureaucratic thicket of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the alternately loved and hated federal agency that oversees all United States government relations with Indian tribes.
Now, for the first time in this century, the US government has an active policy that recognizes the differing needs of tribes, and has given them funds and the autonomy to act in their own behalf.
Unlike the gambling wave, which could crest in a few years, this program has the potential to free Indian tribes from 200 years of paternalism and debilitation.
Self-governance allows councils for 30 tribes to determine how and where to spend funds for social services, health, reservation resources, education, and so on. The Mille Lacs tribe was one of the first to negotiate such a contract or funding agreement.
``It used to be in many cases that we had to get permission from the BIA to have them even consider a project proposal,'' says Don Wedll, commissioner of natural resources for the Mille Lacs. ``And often we waited years for approval. It was not uncommon for the BIA to lose contracts.''
Historically, as defeated nations, tribes had little political leverage or the capacity to prevent treaties from being broken by the US government, beginning in the 1800s. Indians suffered extensive land fraud and abuse over the years. At one point, the Mille Lacs reservation, because of deception and fraud, was reduced to 80 acres, even though treaties were supposed to have protected thousands of acres for them.
The inexorable roll of bureaucratic restrictions and changing US policies, which began with the inception of the BIA in 1824, took a devastating toll on Indian culture and promise.
Today, despite the historical abuse, Indian tribes are still considered sovereign nations. Negotiations or agreements between the United States and tribes are government to government. And the US government holds all Indian land in trust. The budget for the BIA in 1992 was $1.7 billion. New flexibility
Now, for the initial 30 designated tribes around the country, local decisionmaking has provided ``remarkable flexibility for tribes in meeting the needs of their members,'' says a joint study on Indian self-governance done by the Center for the Study of American Indian Law and Policy at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, and the Center for Tribal Studies at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla.
The new ``flexibility'' means that participating tribes negotiate annually with the BIA for a compact of funds to be applied more broadly. Tribes receive funds with fewer strings attached. Documentation is at a minimum. Tribes no longer have to write thick contracts and wait for months or years for decisions on separate programs.
Tribal responsibility is increased. Tribal councils are accountable for program performance. Funds can be transferred as local needs arise. BIA staff in some regional and local offices are either out of a job or have much less to do. Under previous law, known as Public Law 93-638, the BIA was the administrator and tribes became contractors. Self-governance means that tribes are decisionmakers, administrators, doers, and evaluators.
``Self-governance is designed to take the BIA out of the business of providing services for tribes,'' says Steve Heeley, counsel for the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Native American Affairs, ``and to allow tribes to decide how best to use the funds provided for those services.''
``Here's an example of the change,'' says Mr. Wedll, seated at the small tribal headquarters near the lake at Mille Lacs. ``We have an $87,000 wildlife and park contract under self-governance,'' he says. ``Previously it would have carried a 200-page contract, most of which I was responsible for writing, using all the right terminology. At a minimum, it would have taken me a year to write the contract with no guarantee that the project would get funded. Now it is simply a line item in our budget.''
Verner Duus, a compact analyst in the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Office in Washington, says, ``Most contracts come with a thick boilerplate of federal regulations, but if the contract was breaking new ground, it could take a long time to write and be approved.''
Under self-governance, tribal leaders say hundreds of hours of contract writing can now be shifted to implementation of programs. ``Our 50 or 60 tribal contracts have now been reduced to a two-page document,'' Wedll says. ``We are no longer data collectors.'' The tribe follows state and local guidelines used by local governments when managing federal funds.
Two new schools
In addition, without self-governance, the Mille Lacs tribe estimated that it was receiving only 11 cents of every federal dollar in their contracts. ``The federal bureaucracy and the BIA absorbed most of it,'' Wedll says. Under self-governance, the Mille Lacs now realize an estimated 50 to 60 percent of the contract money.
Freed from excessive bureaucratic compliance, and with the sudden wealth from gambling proceeds, the Mille Lacs have designed a master plan for the tribe.
Just completed are two new architect-designed schools, the Nay Ah Shing primary and secondary schools. A health clinic is also nearing completion.
``If we had tried to build these schools with federal money,'' Wedll says, ``it would have taken years. Instead, the two projects were completed in nine months, in full compliance with all building codes.''
``With self-governance money, we were able to locate a full-time worker in St. Paul to help tribal members there,'' says Karen Ekstrom, self-governance coordinator for the Mille Lacs.
More than 40 percent of the tribe lives in the Twin Cities area. ``And now we have five law-enforcement officers on the reservation instead of one,'' she says. ``In all we have a total of about 60 self-governing projects. Our next step is to try to get a computer network to monitor all the projects.''
For larger tribes, such as the Cherokee Nation (145,000 members) with headquarters in Tahlequah, Okla., and with more clout and experience in dealing with the federal government, self-governance offers even more flexibility. Successful program
In need of a center for Head Start and other child-development programs, the Cherokee decided to renovate 13 small one-story homes situated in a circle on tribal land to create an innovative center. ``We pooled 13 sources of funding,'' says Jim Danielson, the Cherokee Nation's executive director of social programs, ``and in six months time we had the project going.''
Although all the funds were not self-governance funds, if the tribe had been operating under the previous BIA procedures, Mr. Danielson estimates, ``it might have taken several years to do it.''
The center, known as the Sequoyah Circle of Friends, services about 500 children a day in Head Start, after school programs, day care, lunch programs, and child-development projects. ``The success of the program,'' Mr. Danielson says, ``can be seen in the number of people who use it and the services we provide, which weren't available before.''
For the Cherokee Nation to service the tribe throughout a 14 county area, the self-governance program employs more than 75 people.
In their first year of self-governance, the Cherokee contract with the BIA was for $6.5 million (not including funds for Indian Health Services). This year the contract reached $8.3 million.
``Self-governance has another effect,'' Danielson says. ``As it has opened doors to use resources wisely; this in turn attracts a staff interested in innovation and results.'' The health-care services of the Cherokee Nation serve as the administrative model for many other tribes when dealing with federal Indian Health Service.
What brings frustration, say many tribal leaders, is their experience with the historical inertia of the BIA.
``In some ways I feel bad,'' Wedll says of the Mille Lacs, ``because some of the people in the BIA mean well, but they are so tied up in the bureaucracy. The BIA is the problem as well as the answer.''
A federal employee and former BIA administrator, who did not want his name used, cautions against excessive condemnation of the BIA. ``Truth is awfully hard to come by in Indian affairs,'' he says.
He cited a 1989 Senate report that revealed extensive oil theft, child abuse, and fraud in the federal government's administration of Indian affairs. Several federal agencies were involved, not just the BIA. ``And the report revealed corruption among tribal officials among the Navajo, the Absentee Shawnee tribe, and others,'' he says.
But tribal officials point to the delays caused by the BIA in implementing the self-governance act after Congress passed it. ``The BIA was moving at its own speed, which is often slow motion,'' Mr. Duus of the Indian affairs office says. Finally, three years after the act passed Congress, the secretary of the interior, heeding requests from tribes, established an Office of Self-Governance separate from the BIA.
Now, when tribal negotiators sit down with representatives from the BIA and the Office of Self-Governance to forge an annual funding agreement, the process ``allows the tribe to cut their share out of the federal budget,'' Duus says, ``but so far only out of the Interior Department and the Indian Health Service.''
Support for self-governance
Will the initial success of self-governance lead to a complete change in the way the BIA and the federal government operate with Indian tribes? Bill Lavell, director of the Office of Self-Governance has said publicly, ``What I envision is getting the federal government out of the tribal government's way as much as possible. Eventually I see expanding the project to all federal departments'' so that each tribe has a single funding agreement.
In the Northwest, where four tribes are involved in self-governance projects, BIA area director Stan Speaks in Portland, Ore., says, ``I support self-governance. But I think it is for some tribes and not for others. Some will opt to manage programs under the old way. Self-governance is not going to go away. It will be here a long, long time. I don't think you have the complaints here [from tribes] because we respect them; we have a partnership, a government to government relationship.''