In her last official interview before exiting her position as Cabinet Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior effective January 20 when the Trump administration began, Sally Jewell sat down January 18 for an exclusive roundtable discussion with the Indian Country Media Network team. Also attending was the now former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Lawrence Roberts, who offered input in several key areas. Below is the complete transcript, edited for length and clarity.
Ray Halbritter, ICMN Publisher: While serving as Secretary of the Interior, what was the most significant thing you learned about Native America?
Jewell: When I first started, I had had some interaction with tribes over the course of my career, mostly as a banker. I had been a banker for a Native Corporation in Alaska back in the early 80s. As the president of a bank, I had signed an agreement…with the Squaxin Island Tribe. I had done business with the Colville Nation; they have an eco-tourism business on Lake Roosevelt that backs up to the Coulee Dam. But I had no real understanding of the importance of self-governance and self-determination and the trust and treaty rights that are a fundamental obligation of the U.S. government. So Kevin Washburn, Larry Roberts’ predecessor as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, was bringing me up to speed in those initial meetings. And he started with something that just stayed with me, and I’ve used it with my Cabinet colleagues, too. He said, ‘Sally, it’s as simple as this: Don’t forget the Indians.’ It’s not simple, but it’s really important, and it’s a simple phrase that reminded me through the course of my tenure that my job is complicated, the federal government is complicated—there are many different moving parts—but if you just remember our obligations to tribal nations, those trust and treaty obligations and the importance of self-governance and self-determination, it will pop into your mind in every decision you make. Whether it is the permitting of a project on federal public land, or cajoling your colleagues at the Department of Education to not forget the Indians when it comes to a budget line item that deals with, say, early childhood education or some other education grant program, or making the Department of Transportation aware of how much Indian country relies on their funding and support for roads on reservations that are some of the worst in the country…. So, I’d say I learned that very quickly, and by Kevin making it in simple terms like that, it made it easy for me to sort of increase in my consciousness. And that was very, very helpful out of the chute. And I think it not only has served me well, but my Cabinet colleagues have heard me say that over and over and over through the White House Council on Native American Affairs. And it really has worked. And even if it’s sort of the eleventh hour, and they’ve forgotten the Indians, they scramble to say, ‘Oh my gosh, I just wasn’t thinking about it, I’m sorry’—and put it back into whatever it was that they were working on. So that really moved me.
Rob Capriccioso, ICMN D.C. Bureau Chief: I don’t know if you caught much of the confirmation hearing for U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, who has been nominated to be your successor in the Trump administration.
Jewell: No, I didn’t. I’m working too hard! (laughter)
Capriccioso: As you know, the Energy Committee oversees the Interior Secretary confirmation process. Indians would get mentioned every once in a while, and he discussed his support for tribal sovereignty and self-determination, but it felt like such a small chunk of his confirmation hearing. When you experienced your own confirmation hearing, did you feel like the senators focused enough on Indian issues for you? How can Indians make their issues more heard, so it doesn’t feel like we’re just a small part of the overall picture?
Jewell: The reality is there is the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs…so that is their focus, so when I have met with members of that committee, it has been all about Indian affairs. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has a much broader portfolio than tribal issues, but that is the committee that hears this, as opposed to being heard by both committees. There are some secretarial posts where they have multiple hearings with different committees, and then the recommendations are made from both committees, but that’s not the case here. So, I wouldn’t read the lack of questions around tribal issues, Indian issues, as a lack of support for those issues by members of Congress at all. I think it’s more the composition of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the natural flow of that. Now, Sen. Murkowski, who is the chair of that committee from the state of Alaska, has a lot of Alaska Native issues and many constituents up there.... In my own hearing, it was a while ago, but I would say that [Indian affairs weren’t] a dominant part of the whole confirmation process. It was more oil, gas and water and conservation and parks and public lands and public land management stuff that dominated.
Capriccioso: We’ve kind of gotten used to the confirmation process working that way, but as you mentioned, there is the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and other secretarial nominees do have multiple committees they go through. Is it worth the Congress doing that for the Interior Secretary position?
Jewell: I think it’s certainly something that you could take up with the Congress and say we’d like to have the Indian Affairs Committee here. I could also argue that it’s not just Interior, right? I mean, the bigger budget for Indian country is HHS. And HUD plays a role, Transportation plays a role. But, yes, I think you could certainly make that case, and then it might get more play in the confirmation hearing.
I will say that Ryan Zinke himself is aware of Indian issues, and the fact that he comes from Montana and has had relationships with tribes in the past—and he’s told me about being an adopted member of the Assiniboine Sioux—is good news for Indian country. He’s coming from a state that has large tribes, and he’s aware of tribal sovereignty and the nation-to-nation relationship that we have. And I think that he will keep that as a priority, at least from the conversations I have had with him.
Halbritter: So you’ve had a chance to talk with him? Did you know him before?
Jewell: Yeah, I don’t know him well, but he serves on the House Natural Resources Committee, and he was always thoughtful and respectful in the questions he asked of me, which I would say is not always the case in that particular venue. He was supportive of full and permanent funding for the Land Water Conservation Fund, which is a tool that has been used in just about every county in the United States to say that as we exploit our mineral resources offshore, let’s use a portion of those revenues that come in to [go to] the Treasury to support parks and open spaces and connected lands onshore. So, he’s been supportive of that, which has been bipartisan, but he’s been out in front talking about that. Those are my interactions, and they’ve always been respectful and pleasant.
Simon Moya-Smith, ICMN culture editor: What would be your message to Native Americans, across the board, who are justly concerned about the incoming administration?
Jewell: I would say to first assume positive intent. Approach the new administration respectfully and assume that they will listen to you. It will be up to them, through their actions, [to show] what their priorities are and how they choose to interact…. I would think strategically about how you can set them up for success in a way that Indian country will [be able to] celebrate their actions. I’m proud of the accomplishments we’ve made here. And to a certain extent that may make us a tough act to follow. I don’t think that it serves Indian country well if you set the bar in such a way that they feel there are other areas where they can be successful. I’d say help them understand how this new administration can really earn the trust, respect, and appreciation of Indian country very quickly. So what does that look like? I think that’s something that’s worth thinking about.
The White House Council on Indian Affairs was created by an executive order by president Obama. I have already talked to the transition team and to Congressman Zinke about how effective that has been. Interior chairs it. And it’s been a very, very valuable tool to keep tribal issues top-of-mind with other Cabinet agencies. And so, I think making the case that this is something that worked and for my successor that this is something that will help him do his job. But it also puts tribal issues on the radar for other agencies as they’re getting ramped up. If ‘don’t forget the Indians’ is an early and often said statement, I think that there’s a lot less likelihood as their forming their priorities and strategies and teams, this will be an important thing to keep in mind.
Moya-Smith: Do you have any particular concerns with Zinke in regard to Native Americans and his relationship in his state with them?
Jewell: I have not been made aware of anything that would give me concern. I have spoken with him about the conflict over the Dakota Access Pipeline and how very, very important it is that the [Army] Corp’s decision to launch an environmental impact statement and to consider alternative routes is to tribes, to Indian country. And basically it speaks to the importance of authentic consultation in all federal action. So as I think you are probably aware, we launched an effort in the fall to hold listening sessions on basically defining consultation. What does consultation look like? What does it mean to tribes? What does it mean to government agencies? We did a lot of listening, and that report is completed and is out there. I think that issue is a very, very important issue to Indian country, and it represents something bigger than this one project. It represents the importance of authentic consultation and listening and making adjustments as appropriate, taking tribal concerns into account. It doesn’t mean everything the tribe wants, it gets, because that’s not the way any of these things work. But it does mean that people feel respected and listened to, and actions bear that out. So, this is a difficult issue for the government to take on in its first weeks and months, and I want them to be aware of how important it is and how I believe the Corp has charted a path forward that addresses the concerns of Indian country, but it’s got to be followed through.
Capriccioso: You said you mentioned to Rep. Zinke the Council on Native American Affairs and how important it is. Did he have a response, agreeing that it is important?
Jewell: Yeah, yeah, I think he appreciates hearing about it. There’s nothing that we’ve said in our conversations that suggests to me that he won’t continue to have a very respectful and serious relationship with Indian country. His indications are all that he starts with a background in that area and understands that it’s an important part of his job. Beyond that, it’s pretty hard for me to speculate. None of us have any idea, really.
Capriccioso: President Trump hasn’t said much, if anything, publicly about Indian affairs. Does that concern you?
Jewell: I think the fact that he lives in New York City and is a real estate developer around the world, including casinos—he will have been familiar with tribal gaming and things like that, but there’s nothing that I have seen in his background that suggests this is much of a top-of-mind issue for him. I have spoken with tribal leaders who have told me he has a person identified within the White House to oversee Indian affairs. I think that’s good. You know, I don’t have a strong background in all the areas Interior oversees, but I have a strong team that has helped me do my job, and in many ways I have deferred to their judgment and leadership. Certainly to Larry and Kevin before him. Mike Connor on issues around water, for example. I think that anyone who has run large, complicated organizations does that first, and I think if, indeed, the White House does have a senior advisor to the President of the United States on that team from Indian country, that’s a good thing.
Moya-Smith: What in particular would you hoped to have done for Indian country, but couldn’t?
Jewell: I will say with great pride that there’s not any area that I didn’t feel like we weren’t willing to at least begin to tackle and take on. There is significant unfinished business, particularly in Indian education. I am a strong believer in working closely with tribal nations on how best to educate their children. Nobody cares more about the children on their reservation than that tribe. You would hope a child’s family, but that’s maybe not the case in any community, so again, the broader community. I just found from day one, the [outcomes for the] children we are responsible for educating do not make me proud of what we have done for Indian education. And that is why we took on restructuring that very early in my tenure. Tony Dearman is the new head of the Bureau of Indian Education. I’ve got a lot of confidence in Tony. I appreciate him stepping up knowing this transition is going on, not knowing whom he’s going to be working for. But because he has a deep and abiding commitment to tribal youth, and he’s been there, and he’s seen what works—so I’m proud that we took it on. I’m not proud of 60 out of 180 schools being in poor condition. And I’ve been to these schools, and they are in poor condition. They are not a place any of us would want our children in, so why is it okay that we educate tribal youth in them? It isn’t. I feel like we’ve made good progress with Congress, and there’s bipartisan support for school construction, school renovations, tribal sovereignty in education, finding a solution where tribal youth get what they deserve—which is an academically rigorous education that enables them to compete in the modern economy, and a culturally rich education that makes them proud of their heritage, where they’re from, their language, so that they can carry both and have that confidence and pride to make them successful no matter what they do. That is where we need to go, but we are not there.
The other thing is that the government tends to be organized in siloes, but we as human beings don’t operate well that way. We’re holistic, just as the environment is holistic. So the Tiwahe Initiative really began to take a look at the whole child, that whole family—what do you do to break a cycle of substance abuse? Or physical and emotional abuse? What were the root causes, and what can we do to address them? How do we get creative across government agencies to do that? And you know, we’ve just begun. There’s a handful of Promise Zones identified by the Department of Agriculture that we’ve worked with—a lot of effort has gone in to Pine Ridge in particular where you have terrible suicide statistics. Getting behind those numbers and asking what’s causing this, and what can we do about it—you know these are tough issues, and they’re not easily solved. But they’re better solved when you work together, across siloes. So we’ve begun that work, but it’s still fragile.
Jewell then asked Lawrence Roberts, outgoing Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, what else he would add to the list of unfinished business.
Roberts: I would add restoration of tribal homelands. While we’ve celebrated a significant amount of land restored into trust during this administration, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what tribes have lost over time. What’s been fascinating serving in this role over the past year has been the White House Council and her Cabinet colleagues engaging on Indian country all together. I don’t think the assistant secretary’s position has ever been more supported throughout the federal government, and so when Secretary Jewell set the goal of restoring half a million acres of lands into trust, I’ll be honest, a lot of our staff were sweatin’ it. But through the leadership of folks over the course of this administration, just yesterday we celebrated where the Bureau of Land Management has stepped up and returned almost 60,000 acres of land to Red Lake in Minnesota. So you have agencies across the federal government asking how they are serving Indian country, and can they do better. I think fee-to-trust, restoring tribal homelands—the last administration looked at that issue and for whatever reason decided not to prioritize it, and I think tribal leadership has shown this administration that if you prioritize restoring tribal homelands that it’s not only a lasting change now, but for future generations.
Jewell: I would say that we have made so much progress, and there’s a lot of momentum. I mean, I think we [will be] fortunate for Larry’s successor and my successor to have a good baseline understanding of that, so there’s no reason for that not to continue. I feel like we’ve made good progress.
We’ve also just begun the cooperative management of our landscapes with tribes. I mentioned the tribal consultation process, and that’s making sure that we are authentically taking tribal input into any federal land management decision. But there is also, through secretarial order, an expectation for all land management agencies in Interior—so that’s pretty much everybody except for the Forest Service, which is in Ag—that they work with tribes on how to jointly manage landscapes, taking into account that we are learning from thousands of years of tribal knowledge on these landscapes. So there have been some really important steps in that direction…. It’s unfinished, but at least we’ve dipped a toe in the water, and the federal land management agencies, through the secretarial order, have clear marching orders. And I think as we do this, where we pick areas that we think will have high probability of success, then good success will breed more success.
Vincent Schilling, ICMN arts & entertainment editor: Several decades ago Chairman Gillette of the Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation wiped tears off his face as the Department of the Interior/Army Corps of Engineers signed away the tribe’s lands for the building of a hydroelectric dam. Now we have seen eight years of this administration as water settlements have been made with tribes, Navajo education has been ceded back to the Native people, over and again we got to see these positive things happen for Indian country. The sentiment is: Someone’s finally listening to us. To leave on such a positive note, how does it feel to leave that legacy behind?
Jewell: I guess the quick answer is that I’m not going to leave it behind, especially as it relates to Native education. I mentioned that it’s unfinished business, so I’ll be there as an advocate. I think that because the work that we’ve done has gotten some attention not only within Indian country, I’ve already had people say I want to help, I want to help, what can I do? I’ve got a philanthropist. I’ve got a foundation. I’d like to add Indian education as a plank to the foundation of what we’re trying to accomplish. You know, Sen. [Byron] Dorgan and his work with the Center for Native American Youth has been a great partner for us in these efforts. I will stay involved. Tony’s going to need an advocate [at the Bureau of Indian Education], Ryan Zinke and his team are going to need encouragement. I am enormously proud of where we’ve gone. Over 100 of these [trust] lawsuits that have been kicking around for decades have been settled. Ramah is huge. The Congress is now aware that it’s their obligation to fully fund contract support costs, and we’ve now had that in the budget these last couple of years. And that came up, actually, in my confirmation hearing—and I didn’t even know what contract support costs were [at the time]…. The Cobell settlement launched the whole land buyback program….
I think that the confidence that tribes have in themselves and the importance of their voice has also gone up, and I think that will live on. Just as my meetings from the first day to the last day have been very different. Even as I look at the agenda of NCAI (the National Congress of American Indians) or AFN (the Alaska Federation of Natives), I see a more ambitious agenda, and one that I think is reflective of greater hope. And I think that will serve Indian country well. So, I won’t leave this stuff behind. But I won’t have the megaphone of this job, and I have to figure out how to bring a voice to this that is constructive and really moves things forward.
The other thing I’d say, you know, I’m a businessperson. That’s what I’ve done pretty much my whole career, and I have witnessed a number of tribes getting bad advice in this job: Pursuing lawsuits that I don’t think have a chance; engaging in businesses and paying consultants that don’t appear to me to have any likelihood of any economic viability. And that’s frustrating. Because I see people making a living by earning fees; they have an incentive to keep earning fees as opposed to helping the tribe achieve what its objective is. I just say that because it bugs me. I think that if I can be thoughtful about how to continue to work with tribes, and maybe because I won’t have a financial interest, I can say something that may be unpopular. But I hope I will be listened to just so that the resources that folks have can be spent in a really thoughtful way that furthers the agenda they actually seek to further.
Halbritter: Do you have any advice for tribes on how they should influence or present themselves to this new administration?
Jewell: The tribal blessings that I got from leaders my first week on the job—that was very meaningful. I think it would be meaningful to my successor as well. He (Zinke) said he used to have sweet grass in his office, but he lost it. So I said, ‘I’ll leave some for you.’ (laughter)
I think building a relationship, a rapport, is going to be helpful—and helping him understand where you think he can be successful. Some of the most effective conversations that I’ve had have not been, you know, pound the table, us versus them. They’ve been calm in a way that helped me to understand the tribal point of view. I think that because of the very real and present situation with the Dakota Access Pipeline, that would be [an example of a] way of not coming in a way that is confrontational, but saying here’s the historic nature of the event, here’s the history, and here’s why these actions of the company are not acceptable to us. We want our sacred sites, our history, our need for clean water, the risks that we face to have really thoughtful consideration. I think that that approach really helps.
When you’re sitting in a meeting with 10 tribal leaders and every one of the 10 tribal leaders has 10 items that they’d like you to do because it’s their one chance to meet with the secretary, then no items get heard. And I reflect on an early meeting I had with a group of tribes in a particular region of the country, and they were all federally recognized but one, and so as we went around the table, some had their laundry lists…. But focus is really key. So the one tribe that everybody in the room remembered what they said was the non-federally recognized tribe that really deserves recognition.
Halbritter: And the best people to bring those issues forward would be the tribal leaders themselves, and they shouldn’t be overly reliant on the consultants and the lobbyists?
Jewell: Yes, that is absolutely fair to say. When a tribal leader comes in with an army of paid people whose livelihoods depend on continuing to work for the tribe, [then] that undermines the effectiveness. I think, when it’s a litigation, that’s different…. There’s one particular case that I won’t call out by name, but this is one of the tribes where others have an interest that they’re trying to pursue through the tribe. So the underlying reason for wanting action by us is not really the tribe’s interest, but these consultants have kind of convinced the tribe that it’s their interest, and it’s a more sympathetic face to put forward, and that’s when the tribe is being used. If there is one thing that makes me crazy, that will have me dig in my heels more than anything, it is when I feel people are using a tribe for their own purposes without disclosing it. And that happens, unfortunately.
Halbritter: You have hit on a very important issue that we don’t always discuss: people who often advise you, consultants and lawyers, it’s not always in their interest to resolve an issue. And that’s a problem. It keeps the controversy going and doesn’t allow the real issues to be resolved.
Jewell: That’s exactly right. And I don’t want to—lawyers are essential, and I have found them to be invaluable in every dimension of this job. But there are lawyers or consultants who do have a different set of interests than their clients in mind. And I can sniff that one out, usually. And I see people that have an agenda with members of Congress, and if they can bring a tribal leader in, that kind of changes the dimension, and maybe they can use consultation or something as a way to get their mechanism done, but that is not authentic.
Ray Cook, ICMN opinions editor: What are your thoughts on creative approaches to help the Lakota and other Sioux peoples with the Black Hills—to not have the Black Hills taken advantage of with mining and other projects that are non-Native?
Jewell: I have not spent enough time to give you a thoughtful answer on that, but we do have tools in our toolbox at Interior. Obviously it will not be up to us; it will be up to the next administration. But we’ve done some mineral withdrawals in areas that were of concern in terms of mining activities—some tribal concerns and some general concerns…. The mining law of 1872 is a blunt instrument, it’s dreadful. It needs to be replaced by something that addresses modern mining risks and practices. My predecessor Bruce Babbitt tried for eight years and got nowhere. So the Black Hills, if the issue is mining, that is something that could be initiated by my successor. And I think if tribes in the region want to make that case, it would be worth bringing forward.
Roberts: The other thing I would offer just as a small step would be cooperative management [if that’s a possibility]—the secretary talked about it earlier.
Cook: What’s your take on border issues? Trump wants to build a wall, but there are tribes that are half in Mexico and half in Canada. Is it going to get harder for us to get across the border?
Jewell: I talked to Tohono O'odham about this not since the election, but just in the past, and I feel like we were making real progress. So I can’t speculate what that might look like, but I think the assumption is that it’s not going to get easier. But I think that that voice is very important. For tribes are involved with cross-border family and cultural connections, I think that’s important for the next administration to know and be aware of. There’s this phrase that I’ve repeated often—I didn’t invent it, but I’ve repeated it—and that’s, ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’
Cook: Three days ago, two missile systems were deployed to the Dakota Access Pipeline areas aimed at water protectors at Standing Rock (shows picture to Jewell). Do you see more of this happening?
Jewell: Good God, it looks like it’s straight out of Star Wars or something. At Standing Rock, there have been peaceful and prayerful protests. They had an incredible gathering of tribal members and non-tribal members who are united in the interest of the tribe. And I think that their efforts and the comments of the elders and the comments of Dave Archambault and others to be peaceful, to be respectful is exactly the way that they should continue to act. I think that there is a very real risk of flooding in the camps, and they are concerned about human lives and property. The tribe is concerned. The Corps is concerned, and I know the state is concerned, too. And I think if this process plays out in the way that the Corps has designed that this won’t be an area where that’s tested. And I can’t emphasize strongly enough that that is the right path forward. So, I haven’t seen the image [of the missile launcher] before, and obviously it is disturbing. And I have had conversations with elected officials from North Dakota relaying our own experiences. I do know that there is risk, and I want people to stay safe. And I want people to listen to each other. And I want them to consult in an authentic way.
Moya-Smith: Do you think that the Obama administration could have acted sooner and done better consultation with the Standing Rock citizens?
I can’t speculate on that. I know that we weighed in at the Department of the Interior with a recommendation on the consultation process, as did the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and I think that’s been helpful in the conclusion that’s been reached [by the Corps].
Schilling: Will the annual White House Tribal Nations Conferences continue in the next administration?
It’s in the executive order that created the White House Council on Native American Affairs, so I want that executive order to stay in place. But that will be up to the next administration. They can easily undo an executive order, just as they can easily undo a secretarial order. But they are out in the public domain, and I think that it will be the responsibility of Indian country to talk about what they value about the tribal nations conferences and what they value about the council and why they’d like to see them continue and to offer their support on how they can make it a worthwhile experience for the Trump administration as well as for Indian country. Again, assume positive intent, work with them on how they can do some things that they feel are wins, frankly. This a president who has made it clear he likes to win, so how do you make it in his best interest to support the things you care about—maybe rebrand it: The Trump Tribal Nations Conference.
Also attending the meeting from Interior were Nedra Darling, director, public affairs and spokeswoman for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs; and Jessica Kershaw, the now former Deputy Director of Communications U.S. Department of the Interior. Representing ICMN were Ray Halbritter, publisher; Ray Cook, opinions editor; Rob Capriccioso, D.C. Bureau Chief; Simon Moya-Smith, culture editor; Vincent Schilling, arts & entertainment editor; and Chris Napolitano, creative director.