Life is slower on American Indian reservations. That is part of their unique personality. But the federal government has taken that attitude one step beyond slow to rigor mortis.

Even when Congress periodically wakes up and takes action, very little happens. Five years ago Congress passed a law mandating an alcohol and substance abuse treatment program for Indian use, and budgeted $50 million for the project. When investigators recently examined the program to see how it was going, they found that it wasn't. The law had not been implemented and the program was still in draft form. Some of the money has been spent, but the result could hardly be called a treatment program.There was a "Sober Rodeo" - a rodeo where no alcohol was served. And some of the funds were spent to renovate a camping facility. The investigators from the Health and Human Services Department's inspector general's office were not impressed. They also found few "dry houses," or emergency shelters and halfway houses for Indian youths.

The findings, disturbing but predictable, are included in a draft report from the inspector general. Our associate Jim Lynch has found other equally disturbing stories. Indian officials in Michigan report that as many as 20 percent of the youths in some tribal communities have been sexually abused. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has shown almost no ability to cope with crime on the reservations.

In the past five years, the BIA has spent about $4 million to computerize the crime-reporting system on reservations. But, sources tell us, it doesn't work. There are only 100 computer terminals for more than 300 reservation police agencies. The Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, spurred on by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., hopes to start helping Indians with some of their environmental problems. The most pressing is water quality.

Environmental hazards on Indian lands have been exacerbated by the arrival of the waste merchants with garbage on their hands and few places to dump it. As we recently reported, Indian tribes have been bombarded with slick proposals to turn their cherished land into dumps for other people's household trash, and, in some cases, toxic waste. The waste merchants figure reservation land is the national blind spot. It's arid and isolated, so who cares? Certainly not the government. Fortunately, tribal leaders have been routinely rejecting the tantalizing offers from trash companies to lease Indian land.

The Indians' battles with a sluggish bureaucracy and carpetbagging entrepreneurs will continue. Montana's Fort Belknap Indian Reservation is locked in a dispute with a mining company that is chewing up the mountains near the reservation. Some Indians believe the mining is polluting their water, and when they go to their sacred sites to perform rituals, the earth shakes from the mining equipment.

The ever-sensitive BIA is considering building a new road to make the mines more accessible to heavy equipment, and the money for the road would come out of the Indians' budget.