Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, third from left, testifies before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com / Available for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Secretary Zinke vows to improve tribal consultation at Interior Department

The new leader of the Department of the Interior is working to improve tribal consultation policies, acknowledging past mistakes in the federal government's dealings with sovereign Indian nations.

In his first appearance on Capitol Hill, Secretary Ryan Zinke repeated what has become his defining phrase when it comes to tribal matters. “Sovereignty should mean something,” the new Cabinet official told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday.

Testifying alongside a panel of tribal leaders, Zinke said the Trump administration is confronting a slew of serious challenges in Indian Country. Whether it's education, treaty rights or health care, the former U.S. Congressman from Montana admitted the government's record is far from perfect.

“Consultation is at the heart of it,” said Zinke, who is an adopted member of the Fort Peck Tribes. “Consultation has been inconsistent at best.”

But as he deals with the struggles, Zinke appeared determined to forge his own path and policies. He declined to endorse a late Obama administration report that focused on some of the inconsistencies in tribal consultation.

Zinke said he was already reading the report, in which Interior joined the Department of the Army and the Department of Justice in looking at the way infrastructure projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline impact tribal communities. While he conceded he might accept some of its recommendations, he claimed it was flawed even though tribes across the nation participated in meetings for it.

“That document was limited in scope in who got to look at it,” Zinke asserted. The report was finalized on January 18, just two days before President Donald Trump was sworn into office.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Hearing March 8, 2017

Beyond consultation, Zinke didn't offer many specifics on the direction the Bureau of Indian Affairs will be taking under his leadership. He demurred when asked about his land-into-trust goals even as tribal witnesses told the committee that restoring their homelands was one of their highest priorities.

“There's going to be a lot of applications,” Zinke acknowledged.

“I'll work with you to make sure the process is transparent and clear,” he said in response to questions from Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), who has been trying to address land-into-trust obstacles created by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar.

During the eight years of the Obama administration, the BIA approved more than 2,000 land-into-trust applications, totaling more than 500,000 acres. Tribes want the agency to do even more so they can protect sacred places, expand their economies and improve the standard of living in their communities.

“The ball was in the hands of the BIA but it took 18 years to get it done,” Isleta Pueblo Governor Paul Torres said of what turned out to be the largest single land-into-trust approval in the agency's history. “They don't have enough employees to get work done.”

Regarding the Bureau of Indian Education, Zinke said it was “unacceptable” for Indian students to attend schools that are falling apart and lack basic necessities such as heat and clean water. Numerous government reports, from Interior's Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office, have uncovered serious safety lapses that go uncorrected for years. The BIE also has been racked by high-level ethical scandals.

At the same time, Zinke isn't rushing to offer solutions without first hearing from tribes themselves. He declined to endorse a controversial proposal offered by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) that would take funds away from BIE schools and place them into accounts that could be used to pay at other institutions.

“Tribes should be able to determine how to deliver their education,” Zinke told McCain, a former chairman of the committee.

The Wednesday afternoon hearing came just a week after the Senate confirmed Zinke to serve as the 52nd Secretary of the Interior. He spent his first week on the job meeting with top BIA staff and confirming plans for a “bold” reorganization at Interior.

Zinke's appearance at the committee was highly-anticipated -- a long line stretched through the halls of the Senate Dirksen Office Building before the hearing began in the afternoon. But it was hindered somewhat by a vote that was called on the Senate floor almost as soon as he began testifying.

Nearly every Republican and Democratic member of the committee attended the hearing but they had to rotate in and out of the committee room in order to participate in the vote.

Zinke himself interrupted the hearing about an hour later because he had another meeting to attend -- it turned out to be one at the White House with President Trump, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska). Murkowski sits on the committee and attended the hearing prior to meeting with Trump.

“We had a productive meeting with President Trump and Secretary Zinke today, discussing everything from a road for King Cove and fisheries to national security, responsible resource development, and reigniting economic growth in Alaska,” Murkowski said afterward, referring to the Native community in King Cove, where the Obama administration rejected a proposal for a “life-saving road.”

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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