Senate Panel Probes Indian Problems : Payoffs, Kickbacks Called Routine in Navajo System

Times Staff Writer

John Paddock, a construction contractor hoping to land work on the Navajo reservation, said he picked up the $700 tab when Peter MacDonald and his wife flew to Las Vegas two years ago to celebrate MacDonald's reelection as chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council.

It was one of several payments and gifts to MacDonald that Paddock estimated eventually cost him more than $110,000. "I felt it was just the price of doing business," Paddock told congressional investigators.

Similar stories told to a Senate special investigating committee have raised a furor on the Navajo reservation, where MacDonald and his critics are now struggling for political control.

The hearings, which resume today, are examining problems on the Indian reservations. They have prompted widespread concern about the laws and regulations that govern Indian affairs.

Gap in Law Seen

"(The hearings) point out a serious gap in federal law that allows bribes and kickbacks in the Indian country" to go unpunished, Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), chairman of the subcommittee, said. "Tribes need to have an independent court system and independent law enforcement."

The subcommittee is trying to determine whether new laws are needed to combat corruption, sexual abuse of children, ties to organized crime, inadequate medical services and other problems on reservations.

The first round of hearings started Jan. 30. A second round is to open in March.

"The long-term solution is self-sufficiency," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the subcommittee members, "but we must (act now) to change the policies, regulations and laws that govern the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies."

The BIA is the largest of the 17 government agencies that manage Indian affairs.

The need for new laws is disputed by some legislators, BIA officials and Indians who believe that more legislation will only aggravate their problems.

"Needless to say," said Russell Means, an Indian activist who has called for abolition of the BIA, "every time the U.S. government has interfered with American Indian life styles, it has proven to be disastrous."

The debate centers around the conflict between the tribal leadership and the federal government that has raged since the Indians were forced onto reservations in the late 1800s.

At that time, the North American tribes represented a variety of beliefs, languages and organizations. "(The government's attempt) to make them all conform to one model was part of the problem" said Rayna Green, a Cherokee who directs the Smithsonian Institution's American Indian program.

Many Indians say that federal policy toward the Indians has been a failure from the beginning.

Switchbacks in Policy

In the early 1900s, the government tried to integrate the reservation Indians with the general population. Then in 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reservation Act, urging the tribes instead to develop their own governments and written constitutions.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Administration sought to cancel many federal obligations to the Indians. That policy gave way during the Richard M. Nixon Administration to promotion of self-determination, and the tribes were pushed to become independent and self-sufficient entities.

Green said that most Indians want the government to continue to fulfill obligations to tribal Americans established through more than 300 treaties. She drew a distinction, however, between fulfilling obligations and meddling in Indian affairs.

"The government should fulfill their treaty obligations to us as we have mutually defined them," she said. "What they should not do is redefine those obligations" without consulting Indian officials.

While few Indians are calling for withdrawal of government aid, many say they fear that new laws respecting the tribes would only aggravate conditions on the reservations.

The federal government, they say, is not in a position to know what is best for any given tribe, and should allow Indian governments to manage their own affairs locally.

Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D-Colo.), the only Indian serving in Congress, said that laws intended to help the Indians often have the opposite effect.

Frequently, Campbell said, "whatever they are going to propose is not going to solve the problem." He said that Congress needs to adopt a more "hands-off" attitude toward Indian affairs.

DeConcini said he believes there is a middle ground.

He said the committee is likely to propose making tribal leaders subject to the same criminal laws as city, county and state officials, but that legislators should keep in mind the goal of reducing tribal dependence on the federal government and the goal of self-sufficiency.

Wilma Mankiller, chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, said that any new federal legislation should promote local control by tribal leaders.

Mankiller, who is known for her willingness to work with the federal government, called the Bureau of Indian Affairs "an anachronism." She said Congress should streamline the agency to "make it more responsive to the communities."

Critics of the bureau, which employs nearly 14,000 people and has an annual operating budget of about $1.5 billion, say that mismanagement is pervasive.

"The complexity of the . . . Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs . . . is paralleled only by their Byzantine accounting, auditing and record-keeping practices," DeConcini said in his opening statement at the hearings.

McCain called it "well-meaning incompetence."

Pat Ragsdale, the agency's interim director, disputed McCain's characterization and compared the bureau to a car that simply needs a tune-up.

The outgoing BIA director, Ross Swimmer, acknowledged the bureau's shortcomings and said he hopes its involvement in Indian affairs eventually can be reduced. Swimmer, a former chief of the Cherokee Nation, called for a "simple transfer of authority and responsibility" from the BIA to tribal governments over the next 10 years.

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