Young members of the Tohono O'odham Nation at Saguaro National Park in Arizona. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

Interior Secretary Zinke focuses on tribes in first Capitol Hill appearance

The new leader of the Department of the Interior is already living up to promises to keep Indian Country on the top of his agenda.

Secretary Ryan Zinke is making his very first appearance on Capitol Hill since being confirmed to the Cabinet. He will be testifying on Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to discuss the Trump administration's tribal priorities.

"Sovereignty needs to mean something," a post on Zinke's Twitter account read on Monday.

Zinke, an adopted member of the Fort Peck Tribes, is already well-versed in Indian Country's most pressing concerns. As a member of Congress between 2015 and 2017, he worked on bills affecting water rights, health care, federal recognition, economic development, protections for Native women and sovereignty.

"I will do everything in my power to ensure respect to the sovereign Indian Nations and territories," Zinke wrote in an email to departmental employees last week.

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

Zinke's pledge will be tested as he pushes for a fair budget for Interior's needs, which includes crumbling Bureau of Indian Education facilities and other Indian programs that the Government Accountability Office has described as "high-risk." During a speech to employees on Friday morning, he told them he wasn't pleased with the numbers he's seen so far.

"I'm going to fight for the budget," he said at Interior's main building in Washington, D.C. "I looked at the budget. I'm not happy, but we're going to fight about it.

"I think I'm going to win at the end of the day," Zinke, who is a former Navy SEAL, said to cheers.

Zinke's comments offer some hope for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, whose budget has largely remained steady over the last several years because Congress failed to pass a stand-alone appropriations bill for Interior. The agency also suffered when sequestration was imposed on the federal government, leading to across the board cuts in tribal programs.

In light of the challenges, tribes have worked closely with allies on Capitol Hill to ensure that key accounts such as contract support costs for self-determination contracts and Indian school construction remain funded. But many are worried about the lack of specifics from the Trump administration -- a budget proposal isn't expected until May, much later than most first-term presidents.

“We need mandatory funding, not discretionary,” Ed Thomas, a Tlingit leader who serves as the co-chair of the Tribal/Interior Budget Council, said at the winter meeting of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington last month.

Thomas made his comments after a key Capitol Hill staffer warned that obstacles lie ahead. “Sequestration is creeping up again,” Darren Benjamin of the House Appropriations Committee told tribal leaders at NCAI.

“Indian Country will find itself, very early in the next several months, competing with very powerful interests for an ever-shrinking account of funding that we call discretionary spending,” Benjamin said.

Tribes will get a chance to share their concerns with Zinke and with lawmakers on Wednesday. Five tribal leaders, including one from the new secretary's home state of Montana, have been invited to testify.

The hearing takes place at 2:15pm Eastern in Room 628 of the Senate Dirksen Office Building. The witness list follows:

The Honorable Ryan Zinke
Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.

The Honorable Alvin Not Afraid, Jr.
Chairman, Crow Nation, Crow Agency, MT

The Honorable Keith B. Anderson
Vice Chairman, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, Prior Lake, MN

The Honorable Jefferson Keel
Lieutenant Governor, Chickasaw Nation, Ada, OK

The Honorable Jamie Azure
District 1 Tribal Councilman, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Belcourt, ND

The Honorable E. Paul Torres
Chairman, All Pueblo Council of Governors, Albuquerque, NM

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Oversight Hearing on “Identifying Indian Affairs priorities for the Trump Administration” (March 8, 2017)

Government Accountability Office Report:
Improving Federal Management of Programs that Serve Tribes and Their Members (February 15, 2017)

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