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Indians and the White House

Even after Interior Secretary Watt's apology to American Indian leaders this week, his dismissal was called for by a group representing more than 150 tribes. Mr. Watt was apologizing for any hurt caused by his previous ''inartful'' words about socialism and social ills on Indian reservations. The vote for his dismissal suggests that hurt indeed was caused, and that Mr. Watt might display more thoughtfulness in the future.

Yet all could be forgiven if the secretary makes President Reagan's new Indian policy more than an empty gesture, as it has been labeled by a number of Indian leaders. The policy goes back to previous administrations' commitment to self-government on Indian reservations. It also proposes greater reliance on private enterprise and less dependence on federal funds.

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To Indian critics the package falls short of past policies; they claim federal cuts already keep the government from fulfilling its legal responsibilities for Indian welfare. These were assumed in exchange for the vast Indian lands turned over to Washington.

The challenge for any administration is to honor these responsibilities and thus foster the national human resource represented by native Americans. The challenge for the Reagan administration is to do so while pursuing its preference for private rather than governmental means of assistance.

Note that Secretary Watt specifically refused to apologize for what he called his message: that Indians have been abused by the US government ''and that has got to change.'' Indians have been saying similar things themselves for a long time. Indeed, many Indian leaders backed Mr. Reagan's election because he stood for freeing Indians from federal dependency and helping them exploit their considerable mineral resources.

But now funds are being cut without sufficient accompanying aid. According to the Labor Department, the conditions of tribal life mean that Indian unemployment is usually underestimated. As it is, the average unemployment on reservations is said to have doubled from 40 percent to 80 percent since 1980.

The Reagan policy is designed to help by such means as removing obstacles to private business on reservations. Its promises of self-determination might lead to the tribal power to regulate commerce and levy taxes which leaders ask. But there is concern about a contrary outcome, weakening tribal government and draining Indians off the reservations.

Some Indians, doubting the administration's commitment to them, are pressing ahead on their own. One tribe, not allowed to issue bonds itself, got a nearby town to do so and lured a greeting card company to set up a plant hiring 350 people. Legislation permitting tribes to issue bonds is well worth considering. Another tribe decided to mine its own coal and use profits for loans to other tribes. Another has entered joint ventures with oil companies.

Such self-reliance is to be welcomed. But the federal government, the only safety net that native Americans have, still must be ready for those in need.

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