Zinke Bears False Witness on Grizzly to Prove He’s No More “Our Champion” than Custer was “Our Friend”

Custer’s 1874 Expedition into the Black Hills hunted for bear.

Guest Commentary

Published June 25, 2017

“I made a cry and it was a genuine bear sound and I felt like a bear and wanted to grab someone. We all went out of the tipi then acting like bears. After this the medicine man came out and he looked like a real bear to me – a big bear,” was a recollection Black Elk shared about a Grizzly Bear Medicine Ceremony he participated in when he was in his early teens. It was no ordinary ceremony or ordinary time. The tipi was in the encampment that had been raised by the Greasy Grass River, and the date was June 24, 1876. The patient was Rattling Hawk who had been shot through the hips and crippled at the Battle of the Rosebud a week earlier. At the end of the Grizzly Bear Medicine Ceremony, he could walk. “This man was not strong enough to fight the next day, but he got well,” recalled Black Elk. The “next day” Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer met many grizzly bears at the Little Bighorn, in the names our ancestors carried, and in the power many had been blessed with by the sacred bear. Custer did not know it, but the grizzly contributed to his demise.

Chairman Sazue on front line at Standing Rock last year.

The irony is not lost on us that President Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, chose to announce the rule to delist the sacred grizzly bear from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as we commemorate the anniversary of our ancestors’ victory over what was that era’s rampage of the military industrial complex. It was, believed those of Custer’s day and age, their Manifest Destiny to dominate, to take or extirpate any who stood between them and the pillage and plunder that would enable them to remake all in their image by force, a consequence they justified as progress. What then, we ask, has changed?

Protections are not being removed from this being our people have revered as sacred for time immemorial because science suggests it is the best course; protections are being removed from the grizzly so that restrictions on the land the grizzly roams will be relaxed and lifted, and the agents of Manifest Destiny in the West today, led by extractive industry and the livestock cartel with big-ag in tow, will be rewarded by their beneficiaries in the Trump Administration and in the statehouses and governors’ mansions of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. As it was with Custer’s peers, Sherman, Sheridan, and their Russian cohort, Grand Duke Alexis, through to Teddy Roosevelt, Madison Grant and George Bird Grinnell, trophy hunting is a form of serial killing practiced almost exclusively by the white, privileged elite, like Don, Jr. and Eric Trump.

We have a symbiotic relationship with the grizzly. There was a higher concentration of grizzly bears in the sacred Black Hills than almost anywhere else. But then came Custer. When Custer illegally invaded the Black Hills in 1874 and opened the Thieves Road that led him to the Little Bighorn, it began 140-years of dispossession and desecration for our people, the Lakota-Dakota of the Oceti Sakowin, the Great Sioux Nation, and our allies and kin, the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The iconic photograph of Custer’s Black Hills expedition is of him with a dead grizzly. For our people, that photo of Custer with the grizzly he trophy hunted represents the theft of the sacred, and our struggle for the Black Hills.

Like Custer, Zinke is proud of his “Indian name,” and never passes up the opportunity to use it. Zinke told the NCAI he was our “champion” just as Custer claimed to be our friend.

“The army is the Indian’s best friend, so long as the latter desired to maintain friendship,” wrote Custer. Zinke may be the “champion” of the handful of leaders who desire to “maintain friendship” with him, which translated, means to stroke his ego, stand next to him in a headdress for a photo-op, and present him with blankets while he enacts the Trump Administration’s Indian policy of termination by privatization. Should the Secretary’s political career be derailed, he can take solace in the fact that so many have “honored” him that he’ll be able to make ends meet by opening a Pendleton store.

Zinke didn’t look like our “champion” when he testified at the House Committee on Natural Resources Oversight Hearing the morning of the delisting announcement. Channeling his inner Kellyanne Conway, Zinke provided an “alternative fact” under oath that, even by the standards of the Trump Administration, and even within the framework of duplicity that has marked federal-Indian relations for 240-years, was stunning. Congressman Wm. Lacy Clay questioned Zinke about tribal consultation and rights in the context of grizzly delisting. “Some of the consultation has been a website, rather than personal; some where the consultation has been more notification rather than consultation,” Zinke conceded, confirming what tribal leaders have said all along, that there has been no “pre-decisional” or “meaningful government-to-government consultation” on grizzly delisting.

Crow Creek Sioux Tribe Chairman Brandon Sazue aaddressing media.

Congressman Clay responded that tribes, “have indicated that the Federal government, in particular the Fish and Wildlife Service, has abandoned that responsibility” in the delisting process. “In a treaty, letters, and resolutions, tribal nations have raised concerns over the science being presented by the service and the irreparable harm of tribal sovereignty, sacred site protections, treaty rights, consultation mandates, and spiritual and religious freedoms. Can you discuss your plan to honor the mandatory pre-decision and meaningful government-to-government consultation with tribes in this matter?” Clay asked. Zinke, who made notes throughout, mumbled “I will continue to live up to my obligation, I look forward to it,” before he bemoaned that the Senate hadn’t move forward with his BIA Director. “And will you commit to consult with affected tribes prior to any delisting announcement?” Clay pressed. “I will commit to that. I think it’s not only a right, it’s the law. But two things, it’s the right thing to do,” Zinke stated. It was, of course, a lie. Within a couple of hours of Zinke concluding his testimony, his Department of the Interior announced the “Delisting of the Yellowstone grizzly bear.”

In the approximately two-hour hiatus between his testimony and the announcement of the rule, Zinke didn’t “consult with affected tribes”! The department he now leads has had years to do it, and hasn’t. There has been no honoring “the mandatory pre-decision and meaningful government-to-government consultation” Rep. Clay asked about. Over fifty tribal nations, including my own, issued declarations and resolutions opposing the delisting and trophy hunting of the grizzly bear, and calling for the federal-Indian trust responsibility to be upheld, which defines “honoring” sovereignty and upholding “treaty obligations.” Some 126 tribal nations then signed the Piikani Nation-initiated The Grizzly: A Treaty of Cooperation, Cultural Revitalization and Restoration, a document Secretary Zinke is familiar with, for on March 8, Crow Nation Chairman, AJ Not Afraid, introduced it to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs with Zinke sat beside him.

Ryan Zinke has a record, so his betrayal on the grizzly should be no surprise. Zinke has a three percent lifetime voting record on the environment; or, in other words, he’s voted against Mother Earth 97 percent of the time.

Chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe of the Oceti Sakowin, the Great Sioux Nation, Brandon Sazue was elected to his third-term as chairman of the tribe in 2016. A consistent defender of tribal rights and sacred lands, in 2009 Chairman Sazue camped on Crow Creek Sioux land through the depths of winter to prevent the IRS from seizing some 7,100 tribal acres. He was on the frontlines during the DAPL resistance at Standing Rock.

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