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Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said Wednesday he really wanted to talk to the delegates at this year’s Tribal Nations Policy Summit at the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians. “I left the emergency room to come,” he said, citing “a little problem.” However, he said, “I went there, got checked up, came out because this was not a speech I was not going to miss.”

He said that’s how deeply he values the relationship with NCAI.

There are a lot of questions about the management of the Interior Department. Bernhardt is acting secretary, following the December resignation of Ryan Zinke from that office, and he is also the White House’s pick for the post (a job that requires Senate confirmation).

One question about the transition was answered by Bernhardt, what’s the plan for the Department of Interior reorganization? It’s still a go.

“The president in his effort to undertake government reform has directed that we modernize our organization by streamlining the structure and improving it all with one point. … to better serve the people we serve,” he said. The reorganization plan has had a “broad outreach” from Congress, county commissioners, and tribes. “We didn't get a lot of positive feedback from you all,” he said, and continued former secretary Ryan Zinke’s promise that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education would not be included.

Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney speaking to tribal leaders. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye.)

Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney speaking to tribal leaders. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye.)

The BIA regions will remain intact and “will remain intact as we move forward with any plans to improve the Department of the Interior.” The reorganization was to create a new structure, including regional “commanders” that cross agency lines. But Bernhardt said that will not include the Indian affairs programs. 

Bernhardt said the BIA, including Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney, worked hard to minimize the impact of the government shutdown. He said the forward funding provisions in the BIE schools worked to keep that operation running smoothly while other agencies were in shutdown mode.

Tribes have asked Congress to forward fund additional federal Indian programs, including the BIA and the Indian Health Service.

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Sweeney said the BIA is working harder to allocate federal funds to tribes “regardless of whether we are in shutdown mode or normal operations.”

As of Tuesday, she said, 87 percent of the allocations were available for tribes to draw from, a figure that is higher than last year (even with the shutdown).

Sweeney said her focus remains on removing barriers so that tribes can use their own sovereignty when it comes to energy development.

Neither Sweeney nor Bernhardt mentioned climate change in their presentations.

However, both talked about the role of Interior when it comes to initiatives concerning murdered and missing Indigenous women. “Indian Affairs; leadership is exploring proactive options for a holistic approach to combat opioid and illegal narcotics trafficking in Indian Country, human trafficking, domestic violence, missing and murdered Indigenous women and children and cold cases under BIA jurisdiction,” she said.

Both Sweeney and Bernhardt said the Carceri decision by the Supreme Court limits their ability to take land into trust and requires “painful determinations.”

“One of the hardest days I had in my current role as assistant secretary was to deliver the legal determination we were asked to make by the district court in Mashpee. Yesterday, I had the good fortune to relay the happy news to the leadership of the Tohome and Snoqualmie Tribes that the solicitor's office has determined they satisfy the Carceri” requirements.

The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.

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Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports