From left; Chickasaw Nation Lt. Gov. Jefferson Keel, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Mohegan Tribe Chairman Kevin Brown, Ohkay Owingeh council member Joe Garcia and Leander "Russ" McDonald, the president of the United Tribes Technical College. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
National Congress of American Indians welcomes Secretary Zinke again
The National Congress of American Indians will once again be hearing from Secretary Ryan Zinke of the Department of the Interior.

Zinke, who joined the Trump administration last March, will be speaking at NCAI's upcoming meeting in Washington, D.C. The appearance marks his second before the largest inter-tribal organization in the United States.

“We look forward to welcoming Secretary Zinke to NCAI’s executive council winter session, our first conference of the new year,” said NCAI President Jefferson Keel. “There is much we can work on together to address the needs of tribes as we strengthen Indian Country’s relationship with the Department of the Interior.”

Zinke first addressed NCAI during its mid-year meeting in Connecticut last June. He repeated his familiar mantra: "Sovereignty has to mean something," he said. "Sovereignty has to be more than a name.”

Since then, Zinke has taken actions that undermine his pledge, according to tribal leaders. In their minds, one of the biggest was his recommendation to reduce the size of the Bears Ears National Monument despite strong support in Indian Country for protecting millions of acres of sacred sites, burial grounds and ancestral villages in Utah.

Shaun Chapoose, a council member from the Ute Tribe, said Zinke failed to engage in adequate consultation when he visited the area last May. That eventually resulted in President Donald Trump gutting the monument by 85 percent, a move being contested by the tribes in federal court.

"The evaluation that was done with Secretary Zinke was: 'I show up, I fly down, just have a PR moment, go look at the more popular locations and call it a day,'" Chapoose said at a Congressional hearing last week.

‪Secretary Ryan Zinke discusses his recommendation to revise the Bears Ears National Monument at the National Congress of American Indians midyear conference in Connecticut. He is asking Congress to authorize tribal co-management of a portion of the monument in Utah, claiming neither the Department of the Interior nor President Donald Trump have the power to do that. Session held at Mohegan Sun on the Mohegan Reservation. June 13, 2017. #NCAIMY17‬

Posted by Indianz.Com on Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Secretary Zinke on Bears Ears: 'I talked to the tribes before, I talked to the tribes after'

Tribal leaders are also upset with efforts to make it harder for them to restore their homelands. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has resumed consultations on changes to the Fee-to-Trust Regulations (25 CFR 151) despite widespread opposition in Indian Country.

Late last month, Zinke released a list of accomplishments he said have benefited Indian Country. The list included the nomination of Tara Sweeney as the political leader of the BIA, the execution of a water rights settlement for the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, the establishment of a royalty policy committee that includes tribal leaders and the finalization of new regulations affecting the sale of Alaska Native handicrafts.

The list, though, seemed thin on actual achievements. Sweeney was never confirmed by the Senate last year due to mishandling of her nomination by the Trump administration, according to Congressional aides from both parties. She has yet to be renominated for the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs job, a position that has been filled by employees on a temporary basis, both in the prior administration and the current one, for more than two years.

Though Zinke has direct experience in tribal water rights, the Pechanga Band settlement was negotiated by the prior administration and enacted into law well before Trump took office last year. Work on the Alaska Native handicrafts regulation also began during the prior administration.

“The President promised the American people that their voices would be heard and that we would prioritize American interests, and I'm proud to say that this year the Department of the Interior has made good on those promises,” Zinke said last month.

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Zinke also mentioned that the administration asked Congress to authorize tribal co-management in a small portion of the original Bears Ears monument. But tribes oppose H.R.4532, the Shash Jáa National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument Act, because it undermines their sovereignty, Chapoose said at last week's hearing.

"People need to remember: we were the sovereign tribes representing our interests in the original proclamation," Chapoose told the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands on January 9. "It came from us directly. It didn't come from my neighbor, it didn't come from someone who thinks they know what I want. It came from us, the tribal leaders."

NCAI's upcoming meeting takes place February 12-15 in D.C. It will be accompanied by the State of Indian Nations, which Keel will deliver on February 12.