Sporting gloves that were a gift from the Blackfeet Nation, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, center, rides in the Cherry Blossom Parade in Washington, D.C., on April 11, 2018. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

Tribes kept in the dark as Trump administration rolls on with reorganization

Despite claims by the Trump administration that it won't move forward with a reorganization at the Department of the Interior without Indian Country's input, tribes continue to be excluded from decisions affecting their communities.

The latest upheaval hits the Navajo Nation. The director of the regional office on the largest reservation in the country was abruptly reassigned and told to move to Washington, D.C., an action taken without consulting tribal leaders.

“The Navajo Nation Council will not idly stand by while the federal government again decides what is in our best interest,” Speaker LoRenzo Bates said on Wednesday after learning about the last-minute change affecting Sharon Pinto, who is a tribal citizen and has served as the director of the office since 2011.

“Only the Navajo Nation knows what is best for the Navajo Nation -- keeping Ms. Pinto as the Navajo area director is best for the Navajo Nation,” Bates added.

Tribal leaders found out about the reassignment on Tuesday and only after Pinto -- not anyone from Washington -- told them.

“The BIA isn’t just another federal agency," said President Russell Begaye. “They play an important role in fulfilling the statutory, treaty-based and policy-based trust obligations the U.S. has to Indian tribes.”

“Pinto’s experience in her position is important in developing partnerships between the BIA and the Navajo Nation,” Begaye continued.

LoRenzo Bates, center in sunglasses, the Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council, leads an awareness walk in recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Child Abuse Awareness Month in Window Rock, Arizona, on April 16, 2018. Photo: Navajo Nation Council

According a tribal advocate who is close to the BIA, the reassignment came as a shock to Pinto, who offered to take a downgrade in her position in order to stay on the reservation. When that request was rejected by top officials in Washington, she indicated that she was considering resigning altogether.

The BIA, however, won't talk about Pinto's reassignment, or her employment status.

“This is a personnel action we are not able to discuss in the press,” Nedra Darling, a spokesperson for the agency, told Indianz.Com.

But with Pinto out of the picture, the regional director position at Navajo is slated to be filled by Hankie Ortiz, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe who currently works in D.C. Though she boasts more than 20 years of federal experience, including a long stint at the Indian Health Service, she has not worked in the field at any of the BIA's regional or agency offices.

Ortiz, though, helped lead a series of "listening sessions" last year in which the Trump administration said it was seeking Indian Country's input about the reorganization at Interior.

“I think at this point decisions haven't been made on a lot of these issues, and that's why we are here,” Ortiz said at one of the meetings in Arizona last June. A portion of the Navajo Nation is in the state.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: FY 2019 Budget Hearing - Department of the Interior April 11, 2018

Nine months later, decisions still haven't been made on a plan in which some BIA regions would be dramatically impacted. At least that's what Secretary Ryan Zinke told key members of Congress last week.

The goal is to unify the agencies, bureaus and offices throughout the country by placing them into 13 newly-drawn regions based largely on natural features like watersheds rather than state or reservation boundaries. But Zinke said Indian Country will determine the fate of the BIA.

"The nations, they're sovereign," Zinke told members of the House Committee on Appropriations last Wednesday. "We are beginning consultation, and whether or not they adopt this model is really up to them."

"I've always said that I believe the nations are sovereign and it's a partnership, it's a relationship," Zinke elaborated. But he quickly added: "I think it's to their advantage to join" the new model.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-California), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that writes Interior's funding bill, pointed out that forcing tribes to adopt different boundaries could be a "complex" matter. For example, the Navajo region, which is currently considered its own office, would be split up into different regions under the reorganization, based on a map presented to lawmakers during the hearing. Tribes in other BIA regions would also see changes to their local offices if Zinke goes through with the plan.

Calvert also said Indian Country has complained about being kept in the dark. The listening sessions -- which Ortiz noted were being "recorded" -- have been followed up with little to no outreach in the last nine months, according to tribal leaders.

"I've heard from a few that feel that they are not part of the process," Calvert told Zinke, who repeated his promise that no decisions will be made without tribal input.

"Again, whether or not the BIA gets incorporated into this model will be up to the results of the consultation," Zinke told the subcommittee.

Still, tribal consultation has yet to begin. In hearings since the beginning of the year, the BIA officials has repeatedly promised that consultation is coming.

"We have not begun the process of consultation yet," John Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe who is the highest-ranking official at the BIA, told the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs last month.

But the top Democrat on the panel noted that the Trump administration is already trying to spend $900,000 to start reorganizing the BIA. Rep. Norma Torres (D-California) also wanted to know where tribes can find information about the reorganization -- currently there is none on the BIA's website, besides the transcripts from the seven sessions last year. The map that has been circulated widely on Capitol Hill isn't there either.

"How many meetings do you envision?" Torres asked Tahsuda, who said he expects "six or eight" consultations across Indian Country.

In addition to the $900,000 at BIA, Interior is seeking reorganization funds for other agencies, like the Bureau of Land Management, whose decisions also impact tribes. Overall, the fiscal year 2019 budget request calls for $17.5 million to be spent on "Reorganization Investments."

Tribes weren't informed about any of the items, even as the Trump administration seeks to cut to other other key housing, education and social service programs.

"Somehow, with these consultations of reorganizing the BIA, maybe more attention should have been paid to listening to tribal leaders," Aaron Payment, the vice president of the National Congress of the American Indians, said at a different hearing on Capitol Hill last Wednesday, the same day Zinke testified.

The Trump team's reorganization has been coupled with mass reassignments of senior officials like Sharon Pinto. She is one the few Native Americans in the Senior Executive Service, a program established to ensure that people serving in management positions are of the "highest quality."

But Indian Country has been disproportionately affected by the moves. A review conducted by Talking Points Memo found that a third were tribal citizens.

Interior did not comment when asked about the disparity. An internal investigation by the Office of Inspector General failed to uncover answers as well.

According to a report posted online on the same day of Zinke's testimony last week, Interior "did not document its plan for selecting senior executives for reassignment, nor did it consistently apply the reasons it stated it used to select senior executives for reassignment."

Talking Points Memo's review uncovered 11 tribal citizens who were told to change jobs last year. Pinto's reassignment, which she is poised to accept despite expressing misgivings, according to a tribal advocate who is close to the BIA, brings the number to an even dozen. Hankie's pending move to Navajo bumps it up to 13.

Office of Inspector General Report:
Reassignment of Senior Executives at the U.S. Department of the Interior (April 11, 2018)

Join the Conversation
Trending in News
More Headlines