Congressional hearings that began this week into the Bureau of Indian Affairs and alleged wrong-doing on Indian reservations are coming at the end of one of the most extensive probes ever made of a federal agency. And it's about time, because the BIA has a reputation - deserved or not - as an organization that has not served the interests of American Indians very well.

It's no secret, as several Indian leaders made clear in opening testimony before the special Senate Investigations Committee, that Indians are unhappy with the BIA.They called it an "anachronism" that has changed little since its founding in 1824, and a slow-moving bureaucracy that did not meet the needs of reservation Indians.

The hearings are not about the role of the BIA as such, but about alleged abuses and fraud in federal programs designed to encourage the government to contract with Indian-owned firms for work on reservations.

Investigators also have looked into problems of Indians and taxpayers being bilked by theft of reservation resources and underpayment of billions of dollars in royalties for oil, gas, minerals, and timber from Indian lands.

Also on the agenda are reports of organized crime infiltrating bingo gambling operations on some of the reservations.

The year-long investigation has covered more than 30 states and compiled 900,000 pages of documents. More than 270 people have been subpoenaed to testify at the congressional hearings and immunity has been granted to a number of others in exchange for testimony.

All of this indicates that the BIA and the reservation system will come out of the hearings in the next few weeks with a considerable black eye. It's hard to be sympathetic. The BIA, in its 165 years, has been largely ineffective in resolving Indian problems.

Tribes still suffer from extreme poverty, massive unemployment, poor health services, bad schooling, and a near-total inability to share in the good life of the nation. Not all of that is the fault of the BIA, of course.

Indians have sought to keep their customs and culture, have resisted assimilation into the larger American culture, and have been handicapped by alcoholism and despair as their lifestyle has become irrelevant to the larger society that surrounds them.

Part of the problem lies with the reservation system, which thrust Indians into remote, harsh regions of the nation where making a living under any circumstances would be difficult, and where Indians were pushed out of sight and out of contact with much of the rest of the nation.

All of this has gone on far too long and whole generations of Indians have paid the price. The hearings in Congress on how the reservation Indians have been exploited should galvanize the nation into a better approach.

Rescuing Indians from their lives of poverty, deprivation, and emptiness won't be easy. But it is an attempt that must be earnestly made.