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Congress Probes Federal Indian Programs

DAY after day, the tales emerging from the Senate hearing room have been the stuff of headlines: corruption among Indian tribal leaders, Indian housing scams, sexual abuse in government-run schools for Indian children, and the infiltration of organized crime into Indian bingo games. For the first time in more than a decade, Congress has been taking a hard look at the jumble of federal programs aimed at helping native Americans - and lawmakers don't like what they see.

``American Indians, and the nation, are being badly served by federal programs that do not accomplish their goals and by individuals more interested in lining their pockets,'' declared Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona. He chairs the special investigations panel of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs that has been holding the hearings since Jan. 30. Co-chairman John McCain (R) of Arizona denounced federal Indian policy as one of ``benign neglect.''

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Much of the blame has been directed at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, even though the responsibility for Indian programs is scattered throughout the federal government.

The BIA receives over $1 billion annually to oversee a myriad of federal programs affecting Indians and acts as the trustee for Indian lands and interests.

Senator McCain has accused the BIA of ``a clear dereliction of duties'' in administering federal Indian programs, while Senator DeConcini has said the agency lacks ``integrity and accountability.''

Three tribal leaders told a Senate panel Tuesday that the BIA still has a role to play despite charges of neglect and corruption aired in hearings this week. Ivan Sidney, Hopi tribe chairman in Arizona, said he believes the BIA will someday be unnecessary. But he said as the tribes work toward total sovereignty, they must continue to work with the federal government.

Nevertheless, several witnesses in the hearings have accused the BIA of being slow in responding to allegations of mob influence and sexual abuse on the reservations, and of rubber-stamping spending decisions made by corrupt Indian leaders.

In the months ahead, the panel will probe allegations that BIA has mismanaged Indian trust funds, which totaled $1.8 billion in 1988; that Indian housing projects are shoddily built; and that oil and gas companies drilling on Indian lands are bilking Indians out of billions of dollars in profit.

According to the latest census figures, 28 percent of the 1.4 million American Indians live in poverty. A quarter of all reservation houses lack complete plumbing. Some 16 percent lack electric lights.

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Some Indian leaders are concerned that any congressional ``solution'' to the problems besetting Indian programs will ultimately work to the detriment of the Indian community.

``We have been the victims of so many changing federal policies,'' Cherokee chief Wilma P. Mankiller told the panel. ``The best solutions to our problems are within our own communities.''

McCain and DeConcini say Congress should demand higher accountability from federal agencies and tribal governments, and close loopholes in current law that allow tribal leaders to be treated differently from state or federal officials. Both senators have toyed with the idea of abolishing the BIA or streamlining the bureaucracy. DeConcini suggested giving federal funds directly to the tribes rather than funneling the money through the BIA.

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