WOUNDED KNEE has been the catalyst," says Donald White, an Oneida Indian who is a student at the University of Illinois. "We have been apathetic for too many years. The people out there are willing to die for us. Maybe it's our time to do something too." Many other Indians, particularly the young, echo his sentiments.
Although the American Indian has been the subject of insatiable curiosity and unrelieved romanticization by whites, almost 500 years of losing battles have made him nearly invisible. But recently the Indian has begun to emerge from behind the misty stereotype of smoke signals, tepees and Tonto. A chorus of angry voices has been making many demands: they call for everything from control of reservation lands and mineral rights to restoration of ancient tribal customs and the power to specify curriculums in Indian grade schools. The move to self-determination is characterized in the new cry: "Indian identification of Indian problems!"
In a sense, the basic Indian demand is to undo history.
Throughout the 19th century, the westward expansion of white America, protected and assisted by the U.S. Cavalry, forced the Indian nations onto smaller and smaller reservations, usually far from their ancestral lands. The Indian population fell from about 1,150,000 at the time of Columbus to an alltime low of 250,000 by 1900. U.S. citizenship rights were withheld from the Indians until 1924. Today, the Indian population is rising fastit is now 792,000. In the past two decades, the life expectancy of the Indian has jumped from 44 years to 63.5 years. But that is still seven years short of the national average. The rates of both alcoholism and suicide among Indians, including many teenagers, are almost twice the national norm. On the reservation, family income averages $1,500, and off it about $3,000. Nationwide, the unemployment figure hovers around 40%.
There are exceptions to this dismal catalogue. The Agua Caliente band, which owns most of the real estate in Palm Springs, Calif., is wealthy indeed. The Jicarilla Apaches in northern New Mexico, blessed with rich oil and gas deposits on their lands, have made investments in movie productions and are developing hunting and tourist facilities.
A more typical situation is that of the Osage Sioux. Less than 100 years ago, they owned all of what is now Osage County, Okla., a choice, oil-soaked region. Over the years, through legal maneuvering and corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, non-Indians managed to get onto the tribal rolls and claim land rights. Today many full-blooded Osages are frozen out of oil profits and tribal affairs.
During its 149 years of existence, the BIA has been the subject of scorn from Indians and whites alike. As the protector of Indian resources and lands, the BIA wields enormous power over almost every aspect of reservation life. It runs Indian schools, from which most students drop out by the sixth grade. It is responsible for many housekeeping chores on the reservations: building and maintaining roads, overseeing construction of irrigation projects and providing welfare assistance. But the BIA does not provide services to the nearly 350,000 Indians who live off reservations. With 13,964 employees 56% of them Indiansthe bureau is a lumbering monster, hopelessly inefficient. Yet it is the only constant link for Indians to federal resources and assistance.