Rep. Ryan Zinke in Frazer, Montana, last summer. (Trahant photo)
Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports
HELENA, MONTANA — Just about a week ago it was clear that Cathy McMorris Rodger was headed to the Interior Department. Nope. It was a headfake. President-elect Donald Trump has instead picked Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke for the post.
This is a much better appointment for Indian Country. Zinke is no less conservative than Rodgers, but since his days in the Montana legislature he has had an open door. He has reached out to tribes in a number of ways. He introduced and championed the Blackfeet water compact and he has supported federal recognition for the Little Shell Band of Chippewa Cree.
“The truth is Ryan does know the value of public lands, he does know, to an extent, I don’t know how deep, the issues of Indian Country,” said Sen. Jon Tester at the Montana Budget and Policy Center’s Legislative Summit Wednesday. He said the Senate confirmation hearing process will be useful in getting Rep. Zinke on record explaining his views on such things as the government’s Trust Responsibility to tribal nations.
“It’s a big deal for the state of Montana,” Tester said. “He has a chance to do some really good stuff. Compare him to some of the people nominated before, AKA Sarah Palin, we will take him in a heartbeat.”
At a congressional debate in Frazer, on the Assiniboine Sioux Tribal Nation, Zinke said he had been adopted as an Assiniboine. He said he supports tribes and sovereignty. “I don’t think anyone has worked harder trying to get Blackfeet Water Compact done … I have been out here not because I am your congressman, but because I care.” He said he has been to people’s homes, met with tribal councils, and visited powwows.
Harry Barnes, chairman of the Blackfeet Nation, told The Helena Independent, that the appointment is “a great day for Montana” and that “Montana tribes will have an ear in the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”
Montana Republicans, many Western Republicans, are eager for an Interior Secretary who will open up more federal lands to oil and gas development. And on this score, Zinke will not disappoint. “I’m excited that the Trump administration plans to unleash the economic power of the resources of the nation,” Jeff Eisman, chair of the Montana Republican Party, told Montana Public Radio. “The federal government does control a lot of resources, especially in our end of the country.”
And it’s not likely tribes will often agree with Zinke. This is a Trump administration and Zinke was one of his early supporters. And Zinke has voted against tribes on other issues, such as the Violence Against Women Act, a law that expanded tribal authority on domestic violence.
If Zinke is confirmed by the Senate there would be a special election for his House seat. (Previous: Juneau for President?)
And Denise Juneau? She said Wednesday night: “I am looking forward to doors opening, figuring out if I want to take advantage of that, and bringing people with me.” That’s a far better answer than a yes or no.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports