My apologies for this late post, but I have been vacationing the past week in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a place that certainly highlights the false promises politicians have repeatedly made when it comes to Indian Country. They provided a totally appropriate backdrop for reading about Ryan Zinke’s visit to the Blackfeet reservation, where Zinke promised to work for the interests of Montana’s Indian tribes. That promise, like so many Zinke has made in the campaign, and like so many politicians have offered Indian Country, rang hollow, given his support for policies that will do real harm to Montana’s reservations.
Zinke claimed that he would support veterans who have served the military:
“We need to make sure our Native Veterans receive the care they deserve, and one essential component of that is making sure there are jobs to support them, and the rest of the tribal community.”
Zinke’s rhetoric isn’t matched by the budget policies he would support as a member of Congress. Zinke, not only supports the reactionary Ryan budget, but says it doesn’t go far enough, and that budget would devastate care for American Indians. According to Mark Trahant, writing for Indian Country today, the Ryan budget would cut $637 million from Indian Health Services, which provide critical services to American Indian veterans.
Broadly, Zinke claimed that the federal government could best help Indian Country by getting “out of the way,” ignoring treaty obligations and decades of neglect and harmful policies directed at reservations:
“The people here are ambitious and hard working—they have a true warrior spirit,” said Zinke, “There are so many opportunities for good paying jobs here, but in order to jumpstart job growth and economic development we need to get the federal government out of the way.”
President of the National Congress of American Indians, Jefferson Keel argued that such an approach is not legally or morally defensible, arguing rightly that “the trust responsibility is not a discretionary choice. It is not a line item. It is a solemn agreement.” The budget Zinke supports, the budget he would make more punitive, will have a devastating impact on Indian Country:
This would mean an deep cuts in funding for tribal government and tribal justice support programs, education, health care, child welfare, support for elders and disabled people, economic development, natural resources and environment programs, agriculture, transportation and telecommunications. In addition, direct benefit (or “mandatory”) programs like Medicare and Medicaid, food assistance, Pell grants, unemployment insurance and temporary assistance for needy families would also be cut deeply.
The Pell Grants cut would be especially devastating. Zinke claims to support educational opportunities for American Indians:
“He also emphasized the importance of education and ensuring that native youth are equipped with the skills necessary to meet the demands of the technologically advanced and rapidly changing job market.”
The Ryan budget Zinke has endorsed will make Pell Grants less accessible and not indexed to the increasing cost of public education, denying millions of lower-income Americans access to the higher education that’s essential to lifting them out of poverty. 90,000 Native Americans used Pell Grants last year, as a lifeline out of poverty, and Senator Zinke wants to restrict their access to this critical program to pay for more tax cuts for the rich.
Ryan Zinke owes Montana’s Indians more than empty rhetoric and a promise to vote for policies that will hurt them. His commitment to a reactionary budget that will undermine health and education on Montana’s reservations makes clear that his priorities will not be working for Montana’s first peoples, but for the business interests he’s beholden to.