Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke said Wednesday he supports “government-to-government” interactions between the federal government and Native American tribes in decision-making processes, a positive sign for members of indigenous communities advocating for more control over their land.
Zinke, whose department oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, began his opening remarks at a wide-ranging Senate Indian affairs committee hearing by affirming his commitment to work with tribal leaders as governments, an important distinction for the sovereign nations.
Many members of the Native American community signaled openness to the current administration. At the hearing, community leaders and Zinke listed major issues facing tribes, noting where they hope to work together.
One issue the federal government and native community could collaborate on, Zinke said, is improving schools on reservations, many of which he said are in need of repairs.
This is not the first time he brought up the topic. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Zinke said he will place an emphasis on improving access to healthcare and education on Indian reservations, which have a poverty rate of 28.4 percent, according to the 2010 Census.
“Each student deserves a quality education that will prepare them for the future,” Zinke said. “Period.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the Bureau of Indian Affairs school system is “failing” by “any measure,” noting that around half of students in the system do not graduate high school.
One option to solve this problem, McCain concluded, is the use of charter schools.
“I’m not saying that’s the answer,” he said, “but I am saying the status quo is not the answer.”
Zinke replied that he supports allowing the tribes to determine the best method of educating their youth, which could include charter schools.
Jefferson Keel — lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation, which has a population of around 49,000 — highlighted Trump’s campaign promise to pass a wide-ranging infrastructure plan.
Any such plan should include tribal leaders, Keel said, as reservations often face “chronic shortages of public and private investment” in areas like roads, airports and sanitation systems.
“We believe tribes should be full participants in any and every program authorized by Congress for the rehabilitation of aging or the development of new infrastructure,” Keel said. “We further believe funds for such projects should flow directly to tribes rather than be run through state governments, which have not always adequately addressed Indian country needs.”
Keith B. Anderson, vice chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, said he also supports an infrastructure plan in the vein of what Trump has proposed — as long as it properly addresses issues facing the native community.
Anderson also said he is excited by Zinke’s new position because, throughout his time in Congress as a representative from Montana, the secretary “has shown that tribal sovereignty is at the top of his list of priorities.”
But Anderson made it clear that he expects Zinke, who affirmed his support for the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act of 2017, to stand up for that belief as a member of Trump’s Cabinet.
“All of what the Shakopee Tribe does, for others, and with other governments, rests on one basic foundation: The Shakopee Tribe is a government, a sovereign, worthy of respect by other sovereign governments,” he said. “Any attack on our core tribal identity — any bypassing of our sovereignty as inconvenient — is a direct assault on our culture and way of life.”
Another topic mentioned was the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, passed under the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. Paul Torres, chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, said any new healthcare law should uphold the act and that Medicaid expansion should stay in place for all states who accepted it, as well as all native reservations.
Some of Trump’s incendiary comments targeting Native Americans in the past might cast doubt on his ability to work with members of the community. Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump often referred to Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas,” a dig against her claims of native heritage.
In 1993, Trump also appeared before the Native American affairs committee and argued against expanding the number of casinos that members of the community own.
“They don’t look like Indians to me.”
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a member of the Chickasaw Nation, called such comments “awful.” But he still maintains his optimism about Trump, especially when considering his choice to have Zinke head the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“The president is off to an exceptionally good start — at least with the person in charge of the agency most important to Indians,” he said in an interview.
For many in the Native American community, former President Barack Obama’s administration proved one of the best in terms of advocating for indigenous issues.
Cole said Obama was “exceptionally good” at being responsive to concerns from the native community. During his presidency, Obama started and attended all eight years of the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, as well as resolving over 100 tribal lawsuits against the federal government at the price of $3.3 billion.
“I say this as a conservative Republican who disagreed with him on many other areas,” Cole said, “but I don’t have anything but a lot of praise to offer him for the manner in which he discharged his responsibilities with respect to Indian country. He did a first-class job.”