Senate confirms Ryan Zinke as new leader of Interior Department

Former U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Montana) is seen here with Glynn Crooks, a former vice chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. Photo: Congressman Ryan Zinke

Tribal leaders are congratulating Ryan Zinke as he takes on the Cabinet position most critical to their interests.

Zinke, an adopted member of the Fort Peck Tribes, has won praise for his work on water rights, health care, federal recognition, economic development, protections for Native women and sovereignty. He'll now be dealing directly with those matters, and a slew of others affecting America's public lands and resources, as the new leader of the Interior Department.

"Ryan Zinke has a long history of fighting for our country. During his career as a Navy SEAL, he fought for American freedoms abroad. Throughout his service as a Congressman for Montana, he fought for Montanans and Montana’s tribes in the halls of Congress,” National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby said on Wednesday after the Senate confirmed Zinke as Secretary of the Interior.

“We have no doubt that Secretary Zinke will continue fighting for all tribes as Secretary of Interior," Cladoosby continued in a press release. "As the trustee to all 567 federally recognized tribes, we wish Secretary Zinke every success in advancing the federal government’s treaty and trust obligations.”

Willie Grayeyes, the chairman of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a group based on the Navajo Nation, was equally hopeful. He called on Zinke to visit Utah to experience the "healing power" of the recently-designated Bears Ears National Monument, whose future lies in the hands of the new Cabinet official.

"As local Native people and San Juan County residents, we fully expect Secretary Zinke to honor the government-to-government relationship by meeting with our elected leaders and listening to Native peoples," Grayeyes said on Wednesday. "Our sovereign tribal nations unanimously embrace and support Bears Ears National Monument.”

“The Secretary of the Interior is the chief trustee of the trust obligation owed by the federal government to all tribes across the United States," added Albert Holiday, who serves as the vice president of the Oljato Chapter on the Navajo Nation. "We pray that Secretary Zinke will fulfill this sacred duty by upholding the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument."

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Ryan Zinke Senate Confirmation Hearing

As head of Interior, Zinke will oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education, the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians and the National Indian Gaming Commission. They are the agencies whose programs, services and policies directly impact tribal governments and tribal citizens across the nation.

Additionally, other agencies at the department, including the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, play critical roles in carrying out the government's trust and treaty obligations. During the confirmation process, Zinke vowed to work with tribes on a government-to-government basis as decisions are made at Interior.

"Sovereignty should mean something," Zinke said on January 17. "When we say a nation is sovereign, it should have weight."

Zinke's pro-tribal views stand in contrast to those of his boss, President Donald Trump. As a developer whose gaming facilities faced direct competition from Indian Country, the new occupant of the White House in the past has been openly hostile to tribes, questioning their sovereignty, legitimacy and abilities.

And after just a month in office, Trump has managed to ignore tribes and discount their concerns as he revived one controversial pipeline, approved another and promised to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Zinke's major task would then appear to be educating the new president on sovereignty and consultation.

“Ryan Zinke has a proven positive track record of working with Indian tribes,” Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a statement. “As the sole congressman for Montana, he championed tribal interests on important issues, including water rights, economic and natural resource development, as well as safety and services for Indian children and women."

“He has demonstrated his commitment to upholding tribal sovereignty and understands the unique government-to-government relationship that the United States shares with tribes," Hoeven said. "I look forward to working with Secretary Zinke and tribal leaders to advance initiatives to improve the quality of life in Indian communities.”

Hoeven was among the 68 members of the Senate who voted to confirm Zinke on Wednesday. All of the Republicans on the committee supported the nomination.

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the committee, and three fellow Democrats on the panel voted in favor of Zinke. But the three other Democrats voted no, according to the roll call.

"As the vice chairman of Senate Indian Affairs Committee and a representative of 23 tribes and pueblos in New Mexico, I am already deeply concerned by the Trump administration's disrespectful and rash early actions on tribal issues, including its decision to move forward with construction on the current route of the Dakota Access Pipeline," Udall said on Wednesday after the vote.

"I have impressed upon Congressman Zinke that he must work to help President Trump understand our trust and treaty obligations to tribes and the need for meaningful consultation on any issue that affects Native American lands and culture," Udall added.

Zinke is the 52nd Secretary of the Interior, according to Wikipedia.

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