Documents show few meetings between Secretary Zinke and tribes

The new leader of the Department of the Interior met with just a handful of tribes during his first two months in office, according to documents released by the Trump administration.

Secretary Ryan Zinke spoke with leaders of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Navajo Nation and the Little Shell Tribe between March 3, his second full day on the job, and April 28. The exchanges represent only a small percentage of the dozens of meetings in which the Cabinet official participated.

The records are hardly exhaustive, though. For example, Zinke met with leaders of the Blackfeet Nation during a visit to Montana in his second week on the job but it's not included in the calenders released under the Freedom of Information Act.

His first appearance on Capitol Hill isn't cataloged either. On March 8, he testified alongside leaders of the Chickasaw Nation, the Crow Nation, the Pueblo of Isleta, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, and vowed to keep tribes at the table in decisions affecting their communities.

“Sovereignty should mean something,” Zinke told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs at the time.

Still, the March and April schedules show a definite tilt towards the new administration's priorities and Indian Country doesn't seem to be a part of them. Meetings with energy industry officials dominated Zinke's agenda for the first two months, which correlates with President Donald Trump taking direct action on coal, oil, land management and related matters.

Zinke, for example, went to the White House on March 27 as Trump signed a bill repealing an Interior rule affecting resource management planning. Opponents said the Obama-era regulation hindered energy development on public lands.

Just two days later, Zinke was back at the White House for an appointment with an ominous title. The "Meeting on Utah" on March 29 preceded Trump's unprecedented attack on the Bears Ears National Monument in that state by nearly a month.

The tribal coalition that pushed for the designation of Bears Ears, which protects 1.35 million acres of sacred and ancestral sites, repeatedly complained about a lack of access to Zinke. Letters and requests went officially unanswered for the two months covered by teh records despite meetings and briefings on April 11 and on April 25 regarding monuments.

After Trump signed the executive order and singled out Bears Ears as an "abuse" of power, Zinke even met with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) and members of the state's Congressional delegation, according to the records, before he ever sat down with the tribes most affected by the designation.

“I'm not going to request, I'm going to demand that he honor his obligation to us, the tribal leaders,” Chairman Shaun Chapoose of the Ute Tribe said on the morning of May 3, just hours before he finally got to talk to Zinke in Washington, D.C.

Since the schedules released by Interior end on April 28, that meeting is not recorded in the documents. And neither is one that took place in Utah on May 7, when Zinke talked to the Bears Ears Commission, a panel of tribal leaders who are supposed to play a role in the management of the new monument.

"Tribal sovereignty matters and whether it’s monuments, energy, education or economic development, tribal consultation will remain a key pillar during my tenure as I ensure tribes have a seat at the table," Zinke said during that exchange.

Relevant Documents:
Secretary Ryan Zinke Schedule March 2017 | Secretary Ryan Zinke Schedule April 2017

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