The crisis among Indian children is the single most important issue facing Indian communities today, says Kevin Gover, assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs.

"Many, many - perhaps most - of our kids really live a lifetime of abuse in their childhoods," Gover said Tuesday. "Alcoholism, substance abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence are part of their lives."Speaking at the opening of the Four Corners Indian Country Conference, Gover said Indian communities are failing their children miserably and pretending not to notice the problems.

Crimes committed by juveniles are on the rise on Indian reservations as they are nationwide, and the focus of this year's conference is juvenile crime. Conference participants hope to form strategies for prosecuting juvenile criminals and dealing with the aftereffects of their crimes.

But Gover, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and former Idaho Attorney General Larry Echo-Hawk asked them to look more deeply: at how generations of unresolved pain have created broken families and broken communities that are raising broken children and not taking responsibility for the outcome.

EchoHawk, also a former legislator and prosecutor and now a law professor at Brigham Young University, said the nation's problems with dropouts, teen pregnancy, teen suicide, drugs and alcohol are magnified on Indian reservations.

He said today's problems can be traced to government policies in the 19th century that took Indians from their homelands, decimated their numbers and relocated them to small reservations where they became dependent on government services.

"As communities, we have not recovered from what happened to us a century or two centuries ago," said Gover.

He said nothing that tribal members and their governments do in the areas of sovereignty, land rights or other important tribal issues matters if another generation continues to suffer and fail.

Tribes have survived, Gover said, on the strength of their community and family bonds. He said tribal governments should put other issues on the back burners and turn their full attention to families and children.

"I really believe that if enough of us work hard enough that we can really turn these communities around and rid them of these scourges that our people suffer," said Gover, himself a recovering alcoholic.

Several hundred federal prosecutors, federal and tribal police officers, probation officers and social workers are attending the annual four-day conference put on by the U.S. attorneys for New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado.