Trump’s new Indian wars

Trump's new Indian wars

The Trump Administration is targeting Native Americans in its reassignments of Interior Department employees, making it easier to force fossil fuel development on their lands, a Talking Points Memo investigation released this morning finds:

Nearly a third of the senior Interior Department (DOI) career officials reassigned under Secretary Ryan Zinke in a major agency reshuffling are Native American, even though Native Americans make up less than 10 percent of the Department’s workforce, a review by TPM has found.

The finding comes days after Democratic lawmakers demanded an investigationinto whether Zinke discriminated when he reassigned 33 career officials last summer, and follows on reports that Zinke has repeatedly told DOI officials he doesn’t care about diversity — which prompted one member of Congress to accuse Zinke of working to create a “lily-white department.”

Former government officials tell TPM that they see the reassignment of top Native American staffers as part of an effort to remove internal opposition to Zinke’s plan to open up more tribal and public lands to the fossil fuel industry.

Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by Katherine Atkinson, a lawyer for ousted DOI climate scientist Joel Clement, the agency has begun to release emails and other documents related to the reassignments, including a listof the 33 reassigned officials.

Government documents and news reports reviewed by TPM show that at least ten are members of Native tribes. The list includes workers who have served in government for many years, like Chickasaw Nation member Stanley Speaks, Oglala Sioux member Michael Black, and Miami Nation member Darren Cruzan.

Several others on the list are Black and Latino, online records show.

Surely this is simply a coincidence, right? Who would ever expect racism or corruption in the Trump Administration? On the other hand:

Singling workers out for political reasons or because of their race would violate federal law. Additionally, DOI’s Indian Preference rules state that the agency must give “absolute preference in employment to American Indians and Alaska Natives” in several of its offices. Those rules specifically apply to reassignments as well as hiring decisions.

“If Zinke had made his diversity comment in the private sector, it would have been one thing, but the Interior Department actually has a legal obligation to diversity,” Atkinson said. “Interior is supposed to prioritize hiring Native Americans, not pushing them out.”

The mass reassignment of Native American senior officials comes amid ongoing tension between tribal groups and Secretary Zinke. The secretary has launched an effort to open up land that is sacred to Native Americans for drilling, mining, and logging, and endorsed President Trump’s budget, which would have slashed half a billion dollars from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Bryan Newland, who served as a senior policy adviser at the BIA under the Obama administration, and is now the tribal chairman of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan, sees the disproportionate reassignment of the veteran BIA officials he worked with as part of a bigger effort to remove barriers to those extractive industries.

“If you have experienced people who understand the U.S. government’s responsibility to Indian tribes, they’re more likely to stand up and say, ‘Hey, we have an obligation to our 567 tribes, and you can’t just open everything up to mining and drilling,’” said Newland. “Those folks were moved to get them out of the way so that the oil- and gas-centric policy can move quickly.”

This is in addition to the Administration’s contempt for the Bureau of Indian Affairs that places the lives of thousands of Native American children and their families at risk.

The indigenous peoples across the world are on the front lines of this battle to protect life on earth from the rapacious attacks of unfettered capitalism and its insatiable greed. We have much to learn from them, if we will only listen.


Photo: Department of Interior Secrety Ryan Zinke looks out over federal lands in Oregon. Creative Commons license; credit Maria Thi Mai, BLM

About the author

David Backes

I have always been drawn to where the wild things are: the natural world around me, and the wilderness within. As a writer, speaker, and university professor, I have for decades focused on this combination of nature and the human spirit. In recent years, my spiritual journey has added another lens: social, environmental and intergenerational justice. Put it all together and you’ve got The Earth Keeper, a blog of integral ecology and the prophetic imagination. The Earth Keeper may at times make you feel hopeful or inspired; it may make you feel uncomfortable or defensive or even angry. I hope it often will be challenging, and always interesting.

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