WASHINGTON (CN) — Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke on Wednesday attended his first congressional hearing in his new role as the nation’s chief officer in charge of Native American affairs.
Zinke, a former senator from Montana, appeared before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs for an oversight hearing on the Trump administration’s priorities in Indian Country. As secretary of the interior, one of Zinke’s responsibilities is to respect treaties and ensure that tribal sovereignty is preserved.
Though he did not stay for entire hearing, Zinke offered bold proclamations to tribal leaders.
“I entered the department just a few days ago, but the importance of my mission to partner with American Indians and Alaska Natives is one I do not take lightly," he said. "It is an issue of incredible importance to me and regardless of political party, our duty as Americans is to uphold our trust responsibilities and consult and collaborate on a government-to-government basis with tribes from Maine to Alaska.”
Zinke was joined by tribal leaders Alvin Not Afraid Jr., chairman of the Crow Nation of Montana; Keith B. Anderson, vice chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux of Minnesota; Lt. Gov. Jefferson Keel of the Oklahoma Chickasaw Nation and Chairman Paul Torres of the All Pueblo Council of Governors of New Mexico.
During his time as a Republican congressman, Zinke told the committee, he had years of experience interacting with members of the Crow and Blackfeet nations.
"I viewed them as equals, not rivals. We shared and debated our priorities and ideas while seeking common ground," he said. "As a warrior, I respected their culture and traditions greatly and I agree with the core value, 'if you have to fight, fight for your people.'"
While the show of support was warmly welcomed by all, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, laid down a gantlet for Zinke.
"Are you going to fight for Indian Country [when it comes to] budget issues? If we fall back further in financing, none of this talk matters," she said. "We aren't going to build better schools, have better healthcare, have more or stronger law enforcement and I hope all of the witnesses here will help me hold [Zinke's] feet to the fire."
Heitkamp also demanded commitment from the Bureau of Indian Education and the Indian Health Service. Both agencies have faced regular and intense scrutiny for their lack of momentum in resolving horrific conditions on tribal lands.
Grossly underfunded schools in disrepair, massive funding misappropriations and abysmal access to basic healthcare and other problems amount to conditions that Zinke acknowledged were “damning.”
Shakopee tribal Chairman Keith Anderson posed a question to the committee.
"Sovereignty is the shield against the hegemony of outsiders who think they would know what's best for us. But who better than a tribe itself can know what is best for that tribe?" he asked.
While the Shakopee are one of the wealthiest tribes in the country — they have donated $18 million in grants to other tribes in recent years — Anderson said that assurances of collaboration from Zinke are crucial.
“We ask Zinke to work hard and make sure that every agency has a meaningful consultation [with tribal leaders] and engages in responsive decision making in partnerships with each tribal government," Anderson said.
Making infrastructure work for those who live in Indian Country includes bringing health and employment services "on par with the rest of America," Anderson added.
As he sees it, Zinke is Indian Country's leading advocate in the Trump administration and as such, they need him to help guide the president's plans to support tax reform and other economic development.
"We need bold, big ideas on tax reform that restore sovereignty further which can lead to self sufficiency," Anderson said.
Zinke said that on his first day on the job he asked for a report on the backlog of infrastructure funding requests by tribes. More than $300 million in appropriation requests are pending review.
Lt. Gov. Keel emphasized the impact that bureaucratic red tape continues to have on his community.
Describing native relations with the federal government as a "long and tortured history," Keel said that both Congress and the Executive Branch are obligated to protect native interests.
"For every one of us it is different," he said.
While some tribes benefit from casinos, in rural or remote areas, he said, relying on that source of funding simply isn't enough.
"We ask you to take the lead within the Trump administration to secure the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act and restore seven decades of legal precedents by putting tribes back on par," Keel said.
With unanimous agreement by all of the tribal leaders, such restoration is not limited to jobs or economic development. It includes maintaining provisions for Indians and Native Alaskans under the Affordable Care Act.
With ACA targeted for repeal and replacement details still murky, Crow Nation Chairman Not Afraid did not appear surprised or deterred by the prospect of the federal government throwing another wrench into the works for tribes.
Acknowledging that cuts to healthcare would be devastating, Not Afraid said, as Crows, they “have a plan if the whole world don't seek to accommodate.”
“Therefore, with ACA, we would hate to see the tribe's identity as well as the treaties being violated,” he said. “Because the Crow people were never captured.”
In a show of support and in a moment of quiet understanding, Keel, Anderson and Torres nodded.