ON THE NAVAJO INDIAN RESERVATION, N.M. — The yucca plants are shimmering, soon to blossom. The evenings are warmer now. Billy Martin and other spiritual elders were up late the other night for a seasonal ritual of prayer and song. Spring has come to the Navajo Nation.
But the next morning, while Martin and keepers of traditional American Indian culture slept, other leaders were gathering at the nearby Crownpoint Chapter House on the Eastern Range of the great Navajo Indian Reservation. The mood was far from tranquil.
An old enemy was back, the reservation council officials warned each other, fear and anger in their eyes. It was the most despised enemy of all, the one that threatens those seeking to preserve the American Indian way of life: the federal government in Washington.
In dusty jeans, braided hair and faded shirts, their faces brown and wind-blown, the tribal members lined the aisles of the one-story chapter house and harangued the buttoned-down, pin-striped members of Congress who are waving the cudgel of fiscal reform and targeting an array of American Indian programs for deep cuts.
Above all, they declared that they must stay unified if they ever hope to battle a Washington government that once again wants to dictate their future.
“Traditional Navajos used to do for themselves,” warned Leonard Arviso, a council aide from tribal headquarters at the nearby Window Rock Agency in Arizona.
“We used to plan for the next day and plan for the next year. But then we became dependent. And now that’s why we’re saying we have got to get it back together again.”
American Indians, more than any other minority in the United States, perhaps stand to lose the most in the budget-cutting spree that has swept the nation’s capital.
While others among the poor and those on the fringes of society rely on individual subsidies from the government, no group like the American Indians has come to depend so heavily on so much public assistance — from monthly bags of rice and beans to basic health care and housing. Even the land under their feet, the giant reservations and the small tribal parcels that cover large swaths of America, were once assigned to them by the government in Washington.
And now, as the social standing of many American Indians continues to worsen, Congress is moving toward reducing many assistance programs and turning much if not all of the “Indian problem” over to the states or tribal councils. If successful, it would loosen a century-old partnership between Washington and the reservation, a relationship that many critics and even some American Indian leaders long have charged is flawed and doomed to fail.
They point to a Bureau of Indian Affairs that has lost or squandered many millions of dollars over the years; individual assistance programs that have been mismanaged by tribal governments; and an unchanging, bitter life cycle for many American Indians in a world of poverty, disease and despair.
“I want to do away with the BIA, period,” said Rep. Bill Richardson, a New Mexico Democrat who on one hand decries the GOP cuts in American Indian assistance but at the same time has given up trying to defend the federal government’s programs.
“It’s all a big waste,” he said.
But therein lies perhaps the greatest quandary: Even should the idea of devolution — shifting government policy from Washington to the local level — descend upon the reservation, many believe that American Indian leaders are ill-prepared at this stage to govern themselves.
“The world is changing. We can’t live like our grandfathers did,” said Alice Benally, a social worker for Navajo youths trapped in a world of high school dropouts, teen-age pregnancies and, more recently than ever, teen-age suicides.
“But we also really are not prepared to take over right now. We would need more education and guidance. It’s like a child. A child can’t just get up and walk on his own.”
Others are more optimistic.
“For us, it can’t get any worse. It can’t. It can’t,” said A-Lul’koy Lotah, a member of the small Chumash band in the Santa Ynez Mountains of Southern California.