Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, left, is seen in Utah during a visit to the Bears Ears National Monument on May 8, 2017. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

Secretary Zinke vows support for sovereignty after 'off-ramp' comments about trust lands

The new leader of the Department of the Interior is committed to "protecting and strengthening" tribal sovereignty, according to a letter from a Trump administration official.

Since being named to the Cabinet post, Secretary Ryan Zinke has made no secret of his views on self-determination. "Sovereignty should mean something," the former Navy SEAL is fond of saying.

But Zinke raised eyebrows last week when he advocated for a different model of federal-tribal relations. He suggested that tribes would be willing to have their lands taken out of trust and transferred to corporations.

"Is there an off-ramp? If tribes would have a choice of leaving Indian trust lands and becoming a corporation, tribes would take it," Zinke said at the National Tribal Energy Summit in Washington, D.C., last Tuesday.

The remarks were first reported on the blog of the National Conference of State Legislatures, which co-sponsored the event. That post was quickly shared by the influential Turtle Talk blog, where the comments were seen as an invitation to terminate the federal government's trust relationship with tribes.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke Keynote at National Tribal Energy Summit

But the "acting" deputy secretary at Interior is now decrying "media mischaracterizations" of Zinke's thoughts. A letter sent to the nation's largest inter-tribal organization aims to "set the record straight" on the Trump administration's view of the trust relationship.

"As a former member of Congress and now head of the department, the Secretary supports tribal self-determination, self-governance, and sovereignty, and believes the federal government should meet its trust responsibilities," Jim Cason, who is serving as the second-in-command at Interior despite never being confirmed to the post, wrote to the National Congress of American Indians on Friday.

Still, the letter did not explain why Zinke brought up the corporate model in the first place. "At this time, there are no plans to alter the department's current management of our trust responsibilities," was all Cason offered.

And Zinke himself did not elaborate during his speech, the video of which was posted by NCSL a day after he addressed the summit. He called for a "dialogue" on the Indian Reorganization Act and insisted that tribes would be the ones driving the conversation even though taking lands out of trust would be a dramatic reversal of long-standing policy.

"It's time to sit down at a table and discuss what we should be," Zinke said, referring to the relationship between tribes and the United States. "Again, the decision is going to be yours because that's the way that we're gonna lead in the Trump administration."

"Anyway, the opportunity is there," he said.

National Conference of State Legislatures on YouTube: Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke Keynote at National Tribal Energy Summit

The lack of clarity leaves open a lot of room for interpretations -- some of them drastic for Indian Country. The corporate model, for example, was employed during the termination era of the 1950s and 1960s, when Congress thought tribes could do a lot better if the federal government got out of their way.

But the loss of federal status was disastrous for terminated tribes, whose assets were taken out of trust and transferred to corporations. Their economies collapsed, their lands were lost to non-Indians and the federal government was no longer there to protect them from encroachments by state and local entities.

"If we get rid of 'tribes,' we can avoid responsibility to individual Indians and save lots of money," former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado), a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, observed in a 2005 speech, according to American Indian Nations: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.

Despite the poor results, a similar model showed up again in the early 1970s. Rather than acknowledge tribes in Alaska as sovereign governments, Congress stripped them of millions of acres of their homelands and transferred what was left to new corporate entities.

While Alaska Native regional and village corporations have seen ups and downs in terms of economic opportunities since 1971, their entities differ significantly from tribes. They are not able to exercise sovereignty over their lands in a manner comparable to tribes in the lower 48 states.

Former president Richard Nixon is seen with leaders of Taos Pueblo at the White House on July 8, 1970. Five months later, they were back in Washington, D.C., when Nixon signed a bill to return 48,000 acres of ancestral territory in New Mexico to the tribe. Photo: White House Press Office / Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

"Secretary Zinke’s comments mirror the language used to support tribal termination in the 1950’s, and to avoid recognition of Alaska Native tribes as 'Indian tribes' in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act," observed attorney Bryan Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community, in another post on Turtle Talk.

"In both instances, private property, corporate status, and avoidance of federal trusteeship was viewed as good for Indian people," wrote Newland, who worked in a political-level position at the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the Obama administration. "Those who lived through that experience would beg to differ."

Termination of tribes has since been repudiated as a policy, with Republican president Richard Nixon delivering some of the strongest remarks against it. In his message to Congress in 1970, he said the relationship between tribes and the federal government is one that carries "immense moral and legal force."

"Self-determination among the Indian people can and must be encouraged without the threat of eventual termination," Nixon said. "In my view, in fact, that is the only way that self-determination can effectively be fostered."

As for Alaska, Native corporations remain a vital part of the state's social, cultural and economic fabric. But so are tribal governments -- there are more than 220 recognized tribes and they finally secured the right to have their lands placed in trust during the Obama administration.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) addresses the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C, on February 14, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

And it's from Alaska that yet another approach has surfaced in recent years. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) has repeatedly introduced legislation that would allow tribes to take certain lands out of trust.

But instead of transferring those lands to corporations, they would be held in "restricted" status. That would protect tribes from unlawful taxation attempts or attempts to remove the lands from tribal ownership.

And H.R.215, the American Indian Empowerment Act, would not alter the federal government's responsibility to tribes. Instead, Young's goal is to let tribes pursue economic and other opportunities on "restricted" lands without seeking approval from agencies like the BIA.

Young told NCAI in February that H.R.215 is a "good bill" that will help tribes exercise sovereignty within the context of the federal trust relationship. "I'm tired of talk and promises in election years -- and you hear a lot," he said at the organization's winter session in Washington.

"Right after an election year, you are forgotten. Let's not forget you today," he said.

Indian Country, though, hasn't been lining up to support the measure, which dates back to 2011. The BIA, during the Obama era, expressed grave concerns about it at the time and Young hasn't changed the bill to address those concerns, some of which were shared by tribes. The bill has not been granted a hearing since 2012 either.

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