Why Is Secretary Zinke Purging American Indians from Interior?

While we reported earlier that Secretary Zinke was under scrutiny for a practice of purging people of color from the Department of the Interior, updated reporting from Talking Points Memo reveals that Zinke’s effort to unmake gains in diversity in the department has been targeted at American Indians.

From TPM:

Nearly a third of the senior Interior Department (DOI) career officials reassigned under Secretary Ryan Zinke in a major agency reshuffling are Native American, even though Native Americans make up less than 10 percent of the Department’s workforce, a review by TPM has found.

The finding comes days after Democratic lawmakers demanded an investigation into whether Zinke discriminated when he reassigned 33 career officials last summer, and follows on reports that Zinke has repeatedly told DOI officials he doesn’t care about diversity — which prompted one member of Congress to accuse Zinke of working to create a “lily-white department.”

Given Zinke’s unwillingness to listen to and practice of rudely silencing Indian activists at Bears Ears, it’s hardly surprising that he would deliberately seek to reassign American Indian workers.

Ollstein goes on to point out that Zinke is legally obligated to prioritize the hiring and retention of American Indians and Alaska Natives, a provision he has seemingly ignored in his effort to remake Interior in his own image:

Singling workers out for political reasons or because of their race would violate federal law. Additionally, DOI’s Indian Preference rules state that the agency must give “absolute preference in employment to American Indians and Alaska Natives” in several of its offices. Those rules specifically apply to reassignments as well as hiring decisions.

“If Zinke had made his diversity comment in the private sector, it would have been one thing, but the Interior Department actually has a legal obligation to diversity,” Atkinson said. “Interior is supposed to prioritize hiring Native Americans, not pushing them out.”

The decision to reassign these workers likely has darker motives, too. Zinke has long-promoted an agenda to undermine the very sovereignty of tribes and open their lands to massive exploitation. Some observers believe that these assignments are designed to facilitate those goals:

Bryan Newland, who served as a senior policy adviser at the BIA under the Obama administration, and is now the tribal chairman of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan, sees the disproportionate reassignment of the veteran BIA officials he worked with as part of a bigger effort to remove barriers to those extractive industries.

“If you have experienced people who understand the U.S. government’s responsibility to Indian tribes, they’re more likely to stand up and say, ‘Hey, we have an obligation to our 567 tribes, and you can’t just open everything up to mining and drilling,’” said Newland. “Those folks were moved to get them out of the way so that the oil- and gas-centric policy can move quickly.”

Secretary Zinke has treated his relationship with tribes the same way he has approached much of his career, with playing dress up and empty words covering an agenda that is far more insidious. Wearing moccasins might have gotten Zinke some good press, but it’s far more significant to investigate his efforts to undermine tribes, both through his personnel practices and policy implementation.

Thus far, the results–for Indian people and the rest of the country–aren’t very promising.


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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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