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The Indians' Just Cause

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THESE were not unreasonable voices being raised in unison in Rapid City, S.D., last week. About 200 American Indian leaders from many tribes gathered to pledge resistance to recent suggestions that Indian treaties ought to be abrogated. It was the first time since 1961 in Chicago that Indians leaders had come together for political reasons. So riddled with lying, cheating, and deception is the history of the white man's treatment of Indians that this new Indian unity is refreshing. Years ago any kind of Indian resistance was put down - usually with force. Today conditions on most reservations are so severe and confining that intertribal unity is as rare as buffalos on the plains.

What prompted this new Indian solidarity was a feisty group of county officials from 12 states. They met in Salt Lake City last month for two reasons - both of which Indians tend to view with suspicion.

First, they publicly commiserated over their powerlessness when state and local rights are displaced by Indian-treaty rights. Second, they demanded that Congress, after years of inconsistent and contradictory Indian policies, resolve once and for all the status of Indians and allegedly outdated treaties.

There is no question that a snarl of multijurisdictional disputes over timber, land, and fishing rights has arisen down through the years. Federal courts become policymakers. Local government agencies carry the brunt of compliance. Often expensive to ensure, often superseding US constitutional rights, the exercise of Indian rights has engendered local hostility in a number of states.

The answer is for Congress to address the issues even without a push from President Bush. A start was made last November when the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs called for a ``New Federalism for American Indians,'' a sort of heightened self-government for tribes, but with new fiscal accountability.

Indian objectives have never changed over the years. The 1961 Indian gathering in Chicago concluded, ``What we ask of America is not charity, not paternalism, even when benevolent. We ask only that the nature of our situation be recognized and made the basis of policy and action.

``In short, the Indians ask for assistance, technical and financial, for the time needed, however long that may be, to regain in the America of the space age some measure of the adjustment they enjoyed as the original possessors of their native land.''


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