On her second to last day before turning off the lights at the U.S. Department of the Interior, Obama administration Cabinet Secretary Sally Jewell invited Indian Country Media Network to conduct an exclusive editorial roundtable focused on top issues of the day facing Indian country.
The roundtable, held January 18 at Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C., served as an exit interview for Jewell to discuss her team’s accomplishments on behalf of Indian country over the last four years, as well as a forum for her to share ideas on fostering a smooth transition between tribes, Indian citizens, and the incoming Trump administration.
During a one-hour interview with ICMN, Jewell said she has been deeply touched by tribal citizens, especially youth, during her tenure. She said not to be surprised when she turns up as an advocate in her post-federal life on tribal issues that have become dear to her heart, especially Indian education. And she said that tribes should be wary of who and how they are represented in Washington, as she has sometimes been turned off by tribal lobbyists and lawyers who have seemed to be more interested in getting tribes to keep paying fees over resolving issues. Authentic consultation, the Dakota Access Pipeline, the need to improve Indian education, tribal homeland restoration, contract support costs, trust settlements, cooperative management, and the Black Hills were among other major topics discussed.
Jewell made clear that she is ready and willing to offer support and encouragement to the next leadership team at Interior, noting that U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Montana) has been nominated to become her successor.
“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,” Jewell said. “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.”
Jewell is quite hopeful that Zinke will utilize the White House Council for Native American Affairs, as well as the annual White House Tribal Leader Conferences established by the Obama administration – both institutionalized through an executive order by President Barack Obama – to further strengthen tribal sovereignty, self-determination, the trust relationship, and federal-tribal consultation.
Jewell said she has already told the Trump transition team and Zinke himself how effective the council has been in coordinating cross-agency support for Native issues. “It’s been a very, very valuable tool to keep tribal issues top of mind with other Cabinet agencies,” she said. “I think [Zinke] appreciates hearing about it, and there’s nothing that’s been said in our conversations that suggests to me that he won’t continue to have a very respectful and serious relationship with Indian country.”
To Indians who are concerned about what the future may hold under the Trump administration, she said it is important to assume positive intent: “Approach the new administration respectfully and assume that they will listen to you,” she said. “It will be up to them, through their actions, [to show] what their priorities are and how they choose to interact.”
Jewell said Indian country will not be served well if the bar is set in such a way that Trump officials feel they can be successful in other areas while ignoring Indian affairs. “I’d say, help them understand how this new administration can really earn the trust, respect and appreciation of Indian country really quickly,” she added.
Jewell shared, too, that tribal leaders have told her President-elect Donald Trump has identified a person who will serve in his White House and oversee Indian affairs.
Attending the meeting from Interior were Jewell, along with outgoing Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Lawrence Roberts; Nedra Darling, director, public affairs and spokeswoman for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs; and Jessica Kershaw, outgoing 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.
ICMN will present more of the roundtable interview in the days to come.