Washington opened the door this week to a potentially constructive new era of relations with American Indians - but only a crack.

It did so when President Bush formally accepted a major goal recently agreed on by Indian leaders during an unprecedented meeting to create a national legislative agenda for all the tribes.The goal is that relations between the tribes and Washington will be handled on a government-to-government basis. To further that objective, Bush promised to designate a senior staffer as a liaison with Indian tribes and to meet more regularly with tribal leaders.

The new arrangement should impel the federal bureaucracy to stop making policies affecting the Indians without consulting them first. In fairness to Washington, though, it wasn't always easy to make policies and operate programs covering many tribes until the Indians stopped speaking with many voices and started pursuing a common legislative agenda.

So far, so good. Even so, Washington's new stance still leaves the federal government mulling over two other major goals sought by the Indians:

- That Congress should strengthen the federal government's trust responsibility for the tribes by beefing up funding for education, health, housing, and other programs for the Indians.

- That Congress should push self-determination for Indian tribes.

How's that again? More federal funds for the Indians - and more independence? Don't federal strings accompany federal funds? Consequently, don't the two goals fight each other?

Well, yes. But it's hard to see how the Indians can become more self-reliant until some of their more serious social and economic problems are overcome. And it's hard to see how those problems can be surmounted without federal help.

By almost any standard of measurement, the Indians are worse off than any other minority in the country. Only 43 percent of American Indians graduate from high school, 45 percent live in poverty, and on some reservations the unemployment rate is more than 80 percent. What's more, the chance of dying from alcoholism among Indians is six times greater than for non-Indians. The suicide rate among Indians is more than double that for non-Indians.

For the Indians to achieve true self-determination, more jobs must be created on the reservations. But this can't be done as long as many reservations are so deficient in such basics as roads, housing, electricity, and sewage treatment.

To attract private industry and jobs, the government will have to invest in the reservations. Clearly, the new agreement this week on a government-to-government relationship between Washington and the tribes is only the first step on the long journey that must be taken to do justice to the American Indians.