Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is presented with a blanket during the National Congress of American Indians mid-year conference at Mohegan Sun on the Mohegan Reservation in Connecticut on June 13, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com / Available for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Secretary Zinke rejects tribal complaints about consultation and Bears Ears

The new leader of the Department of the Interior is rejecting tribal complaints about his controversial recommendation to change the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument.

Speaking to the National Congress of American Indians on Tuesday, Secretary Ryan Zinke insisted that tribes were in the loop throughout his decision-making process. Yet he didn't fully explain why he rejected the near unanimous pleas to preserve the 1.35 million-acre site in Utah.

“I went out there,” Zinke said of his four-day trip to the state last month. “I talked to the tribes.”

“I talked to the tribes before, I talked to the tribes after,” Zinke said during his first appearance before NCAI, which is the nation's largest Indian organization. “I called all the tribes.”

Despite the outreach, Zinke told President Donald Trump that the monument needs to be revised in part because state and local officials in Utah -- almost all of them non-Indian -- "strongly oppose" it. Many of those politicians were granted a meeting at the White House well before tribes got their say.

Given the explanation, Zinke followed up with a curious claim at NCAI's mid-year conference in Connecticut. He said tribes aren't at the table at Bears Ears even though the monument designation recognizes their role in managing their ancestral homelands. A commission has already been established to do just that.

“At the end of the day, I'm asking Congress to authorize co-management of the monument,” Zinke said. ”I didn't have the authorization -- the president doesn't have the authorization to do that.”

‪Secretary Ryan Zinke discusses his recommendation to revise the Bears Ears National Monument at the National Congress of American Indians midyear conference in Connecticut. He is asking Congress to authorize tribal co-management of a portion of the monument in Utah, claiming neither the Department of the Interior nor President Donald Trump have the power to do that. Session held at Mohegan Sun on the Mohegan Reservation. June 13, 2017. #NCAIMY17‬

Posted by Indianz.Com on Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Secretary Zinke on Bears Ears: 'I talked to the tribes before, I talked to the tribes after'

But the story -- which Zinke volunteered during a question and answer period after delivering a speech that lasted only about 8 minutes -- didn't match up with the sentiments on the ground. Tribal leaders found about his decision on Monday afternoon -- two days after his interim report was dated and sent to Trump.

“Whenever there's consultation -- meaningful consultation -- and the tribes give you their thought process ... it should be taken into consideration,” said Governor Mark Mitchell of the Pueblo of Tesuque, whose leaders support Bears Ears. “It should be written in black and white.”

But Indian Country wasn't the only one struggling to understand the words emanating from Washington, D.C. Lower-level officials at Interior weren't told in advance either, leaving them in the awkward position of having to explain their boss's decision during a previously-scheduled listening session despite having no information about it.

Some Interior employees were scrambling for their phones to find out more while Zinke was holding a teleconference with the media at the same time as the session. Mike Black, the “acting” leader of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was forced to read from a copy of the department's press release because that's primarily what he had to go on at the time.

“I apologize -- I'm not an expert on monuments,” Black said during a session that he was in charge of leading.

The debate still isn't over though. Public comments are being accepted through July 10 -- about 76,500 have been submitted on Bears Ears so far, according to the department -- and tribes are vowing to do what it takes to protect the monument from unwanted changes.

“This is the land of Chief Manuelito -- this is the land of our ancestors,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said in a press release on Tuesday. Chief Manuelito, who signed the Navajo Nation treaty with the United States in 1868, was born near Bears Ears in 1818.

“We must be at the table to help define the co-management of the Bears Ears National Monument for all future generations,” Begaye added.

Veterans honor song

Veterans honor song by Leander "Russ" McDonald (Spirit Lake Nation) at the mid-year session of the National Congress of American Indians. The event is being held at Mohegan Sun on the Mohegan Reservation in Connecticut. June 13, 2017. #NCAIMY17

Posted by Indianz.Com on Tuesday, June 13, 2017
NCAI Mid-Year Conference: Veterans Honor Song

Despite the disagreements about consultation and Bears Ears, Zinke was warmly received at NCAI's meeting, which is being hosted by the Mohegan Tribe. Many leaders are eager to ensure that the gains seen during the Obama era remain intact.

“I talk to tribal leaders across the nation who fell unsettled, they feel anxious,” NCAI President Brian Cladoosby said of the new Republican administration. “Sometimes I feel the same way.”

Zinke vowed to maintain an “open door policy” with tribes, though he offered few specifics about his goals as the leader of the department whose decisions impact Indian Country on a daily basis. But he vowed to respect sovereignty and promote self-determination.

“Sovereignty has to mean something,” said Zinke, who is an adopted member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, whose reservation is located in his home state of Montana. “Sovereignty has to be more than a name.”

After his short speech, Zinke spent about another 30 minutes taking questions from tribal leaders. He declined to mount a vigorous defense of Trump's fiscal year 2018 budget, which slashes numerous programs at the BIA, and advocated for a different approach for spending at the agency, whose funding levels have largely remained the same for the past decade.

“I think you squeeze the headquarters down, I think you squeeze the middle management down and you send more resources, where they belong, to the front line,” Zinke said after Ron Allen, the longtime chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe and the treasurer of NCAI, called Trump's request “dead on arrival.” Other tribal leaders decried the budget cuts as well.

Following the remarks, three tribal veterans -- two of them past presidents of NCAI -- presented Zinke with a blanket. Leander “Russ” McDonald, a former chairman of the Spirit Lake Nation and current president of the United Tribes Technical College, delivered an honor song in recognition of the many veterans in attendance. Zinke is a former commander for the Navy SEALs.

NCAI's conference continues on Wednesday and concludes on Thursday.

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