Can Cowboy Ryan Zinke Do Right by American Indians?

U.S. Department of Interior via AP Images Ryan Zinke arrived for his first day as U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary by horseback.

Ryan Zinke’s first appearance before Congress offers promise, but tribes need more than promises

Attending his first hearing as newly installed Secretary of the Department of the Interior, Ryan Zinke didn’t ride in on a horse named Tonto as he did at his first day on the job. Instead, the 6’1″ cowboy-at-heart wore a suit and tie.

A fifth-generation Montanan with knowledge and interest in Indian country issues due to his stints in the Montana Senate and as a U.S. Representative, Zinke is an imposing figure. A former college football player and highly decorated veteran Navy Seal with degrees in geology, business, and global leadership, he will now lead the department that, he says, “has not always stood shoulder to shoulder with men of the tribal communities for which it is tasked to fight.”

In his first appearance before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA) back in March, he said he believes each tribe knows best when it comes to making decisions about their future, including the development of energy resources. And he recognized the massive challenges he faces: “Indian schools, roads, and houses are literally falling apart,” he told a congressional hearing, singling out the “disheartening and devastating” state of educational institutions run by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) which he sees as the foundation for economic development.

Alvin Not Afraid, chairman of the Crow Nation, summed up Zinke’s responsibility as “creating a quality of life for seven future generations while honoring the tribe’s values.” He stated that coal “has been the mainstay of the Crow economy for many years. However, regulatory changes by the Obama administration and a general reduction in dependence on coal as the result of the “changing perspective on coal use” has “taken a serious toll on the western coal industry.” As a result, the Crow are aggressively working to diversify economic development initiatives to reduce their dependence on coal revenues, including tourism and renewable energy, which will take time.

Chickasaw Nation Lieutenant Governor Jefferson Keel urged Zinke to promote quick action on S.63, the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act, which would restore tribal sovereignty on tribal labor relations. He also urged swift reauthorization of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act (NAHASDA), in mothballs for years now, as well as improvements in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA) to accommodate the spectrum of ways tribes can offer employees and members coverage.

When it was turn for the senators to weigh in, they voiced concerns similar to those of the witnesses, although partisan positions on some issues showed.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) expressed unease that BIE is spending without results, and he suggested that charter schools might be one answer.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) reinforced how critical the trust responsibility and tribal input are. Udall also voiced the serious need for departments and agencies to work together to reduce government red tape for the tribes. Zinke admitted that “consultation was inconsistent at best.”

Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), chair of the SCIA, chimed in on how Interior might better empower tribes and cut red tape stifling economic development on reservations.

A worrisome statement by Secretary Zinke was that with regard to the land-into-trust issue, he thought it best be taken up on a case-by-case basis. This essentially reinforces the status quo, even though he stated that he wanted to work with the SCIA to make sure that the process was much more fair and transparent.

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) talked about the need for economic development to include a broader array of financial instruments so that tribes could have the full range of finance tools available to them—and potential partners—given the type of partnership they sought. High on his list are guaranteed loans to develop energy programs.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) simply wanted to know who was “going to fight for Indian country” in the budget wars. “We need a secretary to fight…and not leave Indian country behind in the budget process. … If we don’t fight, we fall further behind.”

While Ryan Zinke was likely the best candidate for the job in the Republican field, he remains suspect because of his business dealings, which were largely in the extractive industries sector. The concern is that he is no friend of those fighting the DAPL and similar projects, and likely to open public land to those industries, because, as he said recently, “the Interior Department is in the energy business.”

So now it’s wait and see whether he translates his promises to Indian country into actions.