Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, second from right, poses with the U.S. Park Police mounted horse unit on National Mall in Washington, D.C., on March 2, 2017. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

New Interior Secretary Zinke confirms rumors of reorganization

Big changes are in store at the Department of the Interior as the agency with the closest ties to Indian Country enters the Trump era.

On the 168th anniversary of the department, its new leader confirmed "rumors" of a reorganization. "They're true," Secretary Ryan Zinke told employees on Friday morning, two days after he was approved for the Cabinet post.

"The last time the Department of the Interior has been organized was about 100 years ago," Zinke said in Washington, D.C. "So the reorganization is going to be bold."

Zinke, who is a former Congressman from Montana, did not offer specifics about the proposed changes during his 10-minute speech. But allies of the Trump administration have said the reorganization will include the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke Speech to Employees March 3, 2017

"We've had unbelievable conversations about this," Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma) said at the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington last month.

"I wanted to hug the guy but he's a pretty big man," Mullin said of Zinke, whom he called a "friend."

"That is great news for us," Mullin asserted, referring to Indian Country in general. "It is great news for us because we will have input."

While both Zinke and Mullin, who chaired Trump's Native American Coalition, noted that Interior hasn't undergone a reorganization in over a century, the same can't be said for the BIA, whose tortured history began with the War Department in 1824. The agency has been through some major changes over the last 192 years and tribes haven't always been happy about being left out of the discussions.

"Indian people, from the heart of Indian Country, are here," Ernie Stevens, the longtime chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, told Mullin last month as he explained that tribal leaders are always ready to address new challenges and opportunities. "We're here on the front line."

Some of the more recent controversial changes included the establishment of the Bureau of Indian Education during the Bush administration. Tribes in the Great Plains, a region that includes Nebraska and South Dakota, managed to secure a hold on the effort in their area, citing a lack of consultation by Interior.

Tribes also objected when the Bush administration began transferring programs from the BIA to the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, which grew dramatically in size and scope between 2001 and 2009. The expansion came at the cost of funding and employees at the BIA.

The Obama administration wasn't immune from criticism either. In an attempt to address concerns about the way the BIE was created, a new Blueprint for Reform called for more tribal inclusion but the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association went back to court to prevent closures of education offices on their reservations.

For now, tribes and their advocates are welcoming Zinke because of his pro-tribal stances. As a first-term member of Congress, he worked on water rights, health care, federal recognition, economic development, protections for Native women and sovereignty, all issues he will be dealing with at Interior.

“During his time in Congress, Ryan Zinke served as a trusted ally of tribal governments and helped advance critical tribal legislative priorities," President Russell Begaye of the Navajo Nation said in a press release. "He demonstrated a deep respect for our sovereignty and fought to ensure that tribal cultures were respected and honored.”

Chris James, the president and CEO of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, also praised Zinke. The two spoke at the Native Nations Inaugural Ball in Washington on January 20, where the Secretary-designee made the rounds among hundreds of tribal leaders and advocates after President Donald Trump was sworn into office.

"Whether it’s access to capital, business development, or energy and mineral resource management, we look forward to an exciting and constructive dialogue with Secretary Zinke and his staff to promote job creation and sustainable tribal economies,” James said on Thursday.

Zinke didn't mention the BIA or Indian Country during his remarks on Friday. But in an email sent to employees, he said respecting tribal sovereignty was one of his main priorities.

"He has fought to promote tribal sovereignty and independence," said Kevin "Jack" Haugrud, who was serving as "acting" Secretary until Zinke came on board.

Zinke's first day on the job on Thursday was quite an unusual affair. Clad in a cowboy hat and his Helmville Rodeo jacket, he made an unprecedented entrance riding a horse named Tonto to the main Interior building at 1849 C Street NW in D.C.

There, he was greeted by department employees and with an honor song by BIA employee Lance Fisher, a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, whose government is based in Montana. He expressed his "deepest appreciation" for the special welcome.

Later in the day, Zinke met with senior BIA staff, including Mike Black, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who is serving as the "acting" assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. The pair posed in front of a flag of the Fort Peck Tribes, of which Zinke is an adopted member.

"Importantly, our sovereign Indian Nations and territories must have the respect and freedom they deserve,” Zinke said on Thursday.

The 52nd Secretary of the Interior also promised more respect for the department's four-legged friends. His dog, Ragnar, is already enjoying his new home and Zinke vowed to make the building more friendly to fellow canines.

The Senate confirmed Zinke on Wednesday by a vote of 68 to 31. Key Democrats, including Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the new vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), a former chairman and former vice chairman of the panel, supported the nomination.

Zinke was sworn into office later in the day and went to work on Thursday. After his horse-bound arrival, he quickly signed two secretarial orders, one of which could benefit Alaska Natives.

“Secretary Zinke has wasted no time in taking common sense steps that are widely supported by Alaskans—particularly those who engage in traditional subsistence hunting and fishing on federal lands,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which considered Zinke's nomination in January, said in a press release.

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