Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke acknowledges that the agency he now oversees, "unfortunately, has not always stood shoulder to shoulder with the tribes and communities it represents."
But Zinke met with the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee this week to help identify Native American-related priorities for the new Trump administration. It's a job that will likely pull him and his staff in many different directions, because as Zinke puts it, "Tribes are not monolithic":
"Each have different aspirations, different opportunities and different ideas on how to govern within the tribes. Most of all, self-determination is a unifying aspect."
Self-determination was a central theme of Wednesday's Senate oversight hearing.
Montana Crow Tribal Chairman Alvin "AJ" Not Afraid was there. Not Afraid asserted the Crow people have a right to determine their own energy production goals and economies:
"As a sovereign nation, the Crow Tribe has a right to regulate our own lands and our resources; and in tandem, green economic initiatives and the vast mineral resources held by Crow lands can ensure and endure economic self-sufficiency for the Crow people."
Arizona Republican Senator John McCain suggested it's time to offer parents an alternative to the troubled Bureau of Indian Education. B.I.E. manages nearly 200 school for Native students nationwide. It’s dealing with scandals, funding shortfalls and reports of widespread safety hazards.
"Mr. Secretary, I would argue that if there’s one thing we owe our Native Americans it’s to give their children a decent education," McCain said. "Statistic after statistic shows we’re not doing that. I believe that one of the options that ought to be examined is charter schools. Give parents a choice."
"I think the tribes should have the latitude to decide for themselves what method they choose to deliver that education … for some kids the standard course of instruction doesn’t work or doesn’t reach the kids. Having some flexibility given back to the tribes on what delivery method is appropriate to the culture is a giant step forward."
Washington State Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell asked for Zinke's help in expediting wildfire-related funding for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. The money is intended to help replant trees in the wake of devastating wildfires there:
"Absolutely. I can also share my commitment to wildfire as far as removing dead and dying dead and dying trees. It is better to spend the money upfront in prevention where we can. And then we do have to replant and reclamation across the board. It’s been an issue."
Indian healthcare was identified as a priority for the Trump administration during Wednesday's meeting.
Zinke, who was Montana's congressman until he was confirmed as Interior secretary less than two weeks ago, noted Indian healthcare in Montana is, "rock bottom in some places". If Congress is going to alter the Obamacare program, Zinke says he hopes American Indian tribes get a chance to craft health care programs best suited for their own communities.
He also underscored the need for better educational and technological infrastructure in Indian Country. Zinke says it's tough to recruit good doctors and technicians if communities don't have good schools and broadband internet to help attract them.