Rep. Ryan Zinke: “Tribal government must be seen as a relationship of equals. Sovereignty means something.”

Rep. Ryan Zinke Connects With Montana Indians, Could Be Next House Speaker

Charles Kader

Indian Country Today Media Network caught up with freshman Congressman Ryan Zinke (R)-Montana, who is just off a barnstorming tour of the historic Montana Hi-Line region, including meeting with Native American tribal representatives during a state-wide RV trip.

Rep. Zinke, who was mentioned as a possible successor to outgoing Speaker of the House John Boehner, is a  former SEAL Team commander.

Thank you for taking time from your recent travels to talk to ICTMN.

You are welcome. Montana is a big state – last week we drove 2,000 miles, all within the state. That’s about as far as if you drove from Caribou, Maine, to Key West, Florida. We have counties bigger than some states. And we also have seven sovereign tribes, eight if you count the Little Shell, which I do. It’s important to me to make sure I’m getting around and talking to everyone.

You met with members of the Blackfeet Tribe and discussed border issues, in addition to the exercise of tribal sovereignty.

In Browning I visited with Blackfeet Chairman Harry Barnes, Secretary Tyson Running Wolf, as well as other tribe members. They told me that they are seeking to expand the border access to Canada and the other Blackfoot Confederacy (Niitsitapi). Right now the border ports of entry close after sundown and do not reopen until the morning.

It seems a little ironic that Blackfeet Nation trackers help to secure the southern border via the special Shadow Wolves unit of the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but when they get back home to Montana, they are restricted in the access to their cultural heritage.

Tribal sovereignty and respect is an important part in federal recognition. Tribal government must be seen as a relationship of equals. Sovereignty means something. The Blackfeet Tribe has earned its status as a warrior nation. Many military veterans come from their people who have defended the United States. That status is very clear to me as a former unit commander. It cannot be overlooked.

Would you consider joining the bi-partisan Northern Border Caucus to help to advance those sentiments that you heard recently?

Montana has one of the longest foreign borders in our nation, and we have a special relationship with Canada as neighbors, trade partners and friends. It was one of the first caucuses I joined.

H.R. 538, the Native American Energy Act, was just passed this month, with Republican majority support. Without going into minute detail on the arguments against its passage, news coverage of the vote (254-173) centers on a streamlining of the licensing process of energy projects on tribally-controlled lands, and bypassing regulatory challenges. Why did you vote for the Act?

This bill represents a significant step for tribes across the country, especially in my state of Montana. I have only been in this seat for a short time and I can tell you that the government, the federal government, has infringed on the sovereignty of our tribes to develop their own natural resources. What is sovereignty? Sovereignty is not going through a labyrinth of rules that are far greater than other federal lands or state lands. It's not right. It's not right for the Crow People who want to develop their coal. It's not right for every Indian Nation across this land. The government hinders their ability to develop energy resources, and this is coming straight from a June 2015 GAO report. The Crow Tribe, a proud tribe within Montana, wants to be self-sufficient. They would like to have a prosperous economy and do right by their people. Chairman Old Coyote has said a war on coal is a war on the Crow People. And he is right. There is no better job on the Crow Reservation than a coal job. There is no better future than having access to the nine billion tons of coal that are locked in the ground. However, these resources have yet to be developed because the federal government is in the way. This bill doesn't skirt environmental rules or laws, it simply streamlines the process. It reduces burdensome bureaucracy and deters frivolous lawsuits that limit competitiveness of tribal energy development. This bill honors their sovereignty and their rights. This is not a Democrat or Republican issue. This is an American issue.

What one memory sticks out from the past busy week that you have had?

Definitely the memorial ceremony for Michael Bell, a fallen Navy SEAL from the Assiniboine Sioux tribe. Michael was tragically murdered in 2006 while he was at home between deployments. This really struck me because I was one of his instructors early in his career. Michael was a warrior’s warrior – he made me proud as his commander and as a Montanan. I visited Wolf Point to see Michael’s family and tribal leaders and to honor Michael’s life and sacrifice. They honored me with a traditional name, Seal Leader, performed a name song, and presented me with beautiful hand-made gifts in Michael’s honor. I left knowing I had family in Wolf Point. It was among the greatest honors of my life.

The Wall Street Journal has published an article that begins with a paragraph about your public service and the talk of you as a replacement for Rep. Boehner when he retires on October 30th. On your social media pages, there is a lot of encouragement from citizens located near and far that you make a run at the nominating process. What do you make of this hullabaloo?

It’s so humbling to hear from so many Montanans and folks across our country. I’m looking at it. The Speaker is about leadership and not policy and we’re at a point in our nation’s history where we’ve had a Speaker resign, we’ve had a presumptive Speaker resign and quite frankly we’re facing what I think is a leadership crisis. In our country’s history, there have been other freshmen Speakers—though it has been a long time. But it isn’t about policies. It’s about getting the Congress to do their duty: And that’s to defend the principles that made this country strong and defending the Constitution. I’ve taken an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. It’s time to rise and put our country first, and yourself second. It’s about leadership. We’re looking at it. Our phones are ringing off the hook because I think America wants something different. I haven’t decided, but what I have decided is that Congress better do our duty and defend our values of this country. I’m listening—I’m on a bus tour around beautiful Montana, That’s the heartbeat of America right there. Americans are frustrated and they look at their government and it’s not doing what we should be doing. They want a better future and they want America to be strong and prosperous.

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