Forget the Beer. Cover Ryan Zinke’s Efforts to Undermine Indian Sovereignty

Photo from Secretary of Interior's Facebook page. The hat was not digitally altered. He wears it like that.

While it’s certainly critical news that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke had a beer with Senator Lisa Murkowski, the editorial staff at the Great Falls Tribune and other Montana papers might be better served covering actual policy that Secretary Zinke is pursuing at Interior, policy that could devastate Indian Country.

For instance, it seems newsworthy that Zinke is, according to NonProfit Quarterly still “championing” a budget that would enact devastating cuts on Indian Country:

Trump’s plan calls for the elimination of approximately 241 Bureau of Indian Affairs positions. Indian education would lose $64.4 million, and funding to Indian social service, welfare assistance, and the Indian Child Welfare Act would drop by $23.3 million. Support for tribal justice programs would lose $21.4 million, and the $8 million housing program would be eliminated altogether. Other cuts: construction by $50.3 million, real estate services by $17.4 million, natural resource management programs by $27.3 million, and the Tribal Climate Resilience Awards will lose all its funding.

Or perhaps his efforts to undermine the sovereignty of Indian tribes by cutting tribes out of the decision-making on a Land Buy-Back program that was designed to improve tribal land management and sovereignty. From HuffPost:

The proposed change to the program “represents everything that Indian Country has come to fear from Secretary Zinke’s leadership,” said one former Department of Interior official who requested anonymity to comment candidly. It’s “a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist; an effort to undermine an Obama Administration initiative for the sake of being contrary; and a move that will widely impact Indian communities without any formal government-to-government consultation,” the former official said in an email. 

The story goes on to note that the action was made without consultation with the tribes, who received ““Dear Tribal Leader”  from Interior and that the decision undermines the federal government’s agreement in the landmark Cobell settlement.

Or perhaps Zinke’s steps towards the repudiated Termination program of the Eisenhower Administration, a policy so disastrous to American Indian people that it was condemned by Richard Nixon. From the Los Angeles Times:

In May, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke raised eyebrows at the National Tribal Energy Summit when he called for an “off-ramp” for taking native lands out of trust. “If tribes would have a choice of leaving Indian trust lands and becoming a corporation, tribes would take it,” he said.

Zinke’s comments bore a striking resemblance to the rationale used to justify Termination, an Eisenhower-era policy in which Indians were paid to dismantle their sovereign governments and relinquish their lands. Proponents of the policy argued that if Native Americans adopted the habits of “civilized life,” they would need less land, which, conveniently, also would mean the expansion of the United States. Congress imposed the policy, House Concurrent Resolution 108, without consulting Indian Country.

The policy proved so catastrophic that President Nixon ended it in 1970 with a strong repudiation, telling Congress, “Forced termination is wrong.” He went on to sign scores of legislative measures that restored the sovereignty of tribal nations. Every president since Nixon has embraced a policy of “self-determination without termination” — the idea that Native Americans are best equipped to govern themselves.

Or perhaps Zinke’s call for tribes to give up sovereignty by incorporating and privatizing land held in trust. From the New Mexico Political Report:

Further to that, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has in the past touted Trump’s “America First” approach to energy development, recently suggested that tribes should consider incorporating, a move that would help privatize tribal lands and reduce land held in trust by the federal government. At a National Tribal Energy Summit in May, Zinke said many tribes would prefer to incorporate and leave trust lands behind. His statement holds little traction with many tribes, however, because incorporating means losing tribal sovereignty, something Grijalva echoed in his House testimony.

Add these to his unwillingness to meet with tribal leaders about monument designation and his disregard for the Northern Cheyenne’s legitimate concern about coal operations, and Zinke is demonstrating a clear pattern here, of disrespect for Indian people and their concerns.

We all understand that Congressman Zinke is excellent at substance-free photo opportunities, whether they involve riding a horse, drinking a beer, or wearing a hat backwards, but it’s not really the role of the press to share memes or write stories about, and I am not making this up, the use of beer emojis. As Secretary of the Interior, Mr. Zinke has more power over Indian Country than any federal government official and, thus far, he has systematically embraced a reactionary agenda that threatens the sovereignty and economic well-being of tribes across the country, including Montana.

Isn’t that a more fitting topic for the editorial board of a legitimate newspaper?


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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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