Out of the Shadow of Custer: Zinke Proves He’s No “Champion” of Indian Country With his Grizzly Lies

Chairman Brandon Sazue on the frontlines at Standing Rock.

“I made a cry and it was a genuine bear sound and I felt like a bear and wanted to grab someone. We all went out of the tipi then acting like bears. After this the medicine man came out and he looked like a real bear to me – a big bear,” was a recollection Black Elk shared about a Grizzly Bear Medicine Ceremony he participated in when he was in his early teens. It was no ordinary ceremony or ordinary time. The tipi was in the encampment that had been raised by the Greasy Grass River, and the date was June 24, 1876. The patient was Rattling Hawk who had been shot through the hips and crippled at the Battle of the Rosebud a week earlier. At the end of the Grizzly Bear Medicine Ceremony, he could walk. “This man was not strong enough to fight the next day, but he got well,” recalled Black Elk. The “next day” Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer met many grizzly bears at the Little Bighorn, in the names our ancestors carried, and in the power many had been blessed with by the sacred bear. Custer did not know it, but the grizzly contributed to his demise.

The irony is not lost on us that President Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, chose to announce the rule to delist the sacred grizzly bear from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as we commemorate the anniversary of our ancestors’ victory over what was that era’s rampage of the military industrial complex. It was, believed those of Custer’s day and age, their Manifest Destiny to dominate, to take or extirpate any who stood between them and the pillage and plunder that would enable them to remake all in their image by force, a consequence they justified as progress. What then, we ask, has changed?

Protections are not being removed from this being our people have revered as sacred for time immemorial because science suggests it is the best course; protections are being removed from the grizzly so that restrictions on the land the grizzly roams will be relaxed and lifted, and the agents of Manifest Destiny in the West today, led by extractive industry and the livestock cartel with big-ag in tow, will be rewarded by their beneficiaries in the Trump Administration and in the statehouses and governors’ mansions of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. For context, never have so many politicians in cowboy hats been as afraid of a prairie chicken as they were when they feared the sage grouse would receive ESA designation. As it was with Custer’s peers, Sherman, Sheridan, and their Russian cohort, Grand Duke Alexis, through to Teddy Roosevelt, Madison Grant and George Bird Grinnell, trophy hunting is a form of serial killing practiced almost exclusively by the white, privileged elite, like Don, Jr. and Eric Trump. The directors of state game and fish departments today are little more than servile gamekeepers who exist to tend to their masters’ lust for heads and hides, and leave the land vulnerable to whatever those masters will profit from. In this “Game of Thrones” they are Reek. The grizzly bear is not a “trophy game animal” as their post-delisting plans would have you believe.

We have a symbiotic relationship with the grizzly. There was a higher concentration of grizzly bears in the sacred Black Hills than almost anywhere else. But then came Custer. When Custer illegally invaded the Black Hills in 1874 and opened the Thieves Road that led him to the Little Bighorn, it began 140-years of dispossession and desecration for our people, the Lakota-Dakota of the Oceti Sakowin, the Great Sioux Nation, and our allies and kin, the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The iconic photograph of Custer’s Black Hills expedition is of him with a dead grizzly. The St. Paul Daily Pioneer reported that it was, “the first grizzly bear ever shot by a white man in the Black Hills.” If we do not act, we will not be able to count the number of grizzlies killed by would-be Custers in Greater Yellowstone after delisting. For our people, that photo of Custer with the grizzly he trophy hunted represents the theft of the sacred, and our struggle for the Black Hills.

“If I were an Indian,” Custer once mused, while criticizing “the confined limits” of reservations and “the blessed benefits of civilization, with its vices thrown in.” It was a statement and sentiment not dissimilar from those made by Secretary Zinke to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), where he spoke gravely of the failings of the system, promised to improve them, and to honor tribal sovereignty. “Not only should the department meet our treaty obligations but exceed our treaty obligations. I’m honored to be your champion,” Zinke told the NCAI. Like Custer, Zinke is proud of his “Indian name,” and never passes up the opportunity to use it, even in Department of Interior PSIs and videos. Zinke claims to be our “champion” just as Custer claimed to be our friend. “The army is the Indian’s best friend, so

Custer, the first grizzly bear trophy hunter in the Black Hills.

long as the latter desired to maintain friendship,” wrote Custer. Zinke may be the “champion” of those handful of tribal leaders who desire to “maintain friendship” with him, which translated, means to say wonderful things about him, stand next to him in a headdress for a photo-op, and present him with blankets while he enacts the Trump Administration’s Indian policy of termination by privatization. Should the Secretary’s political career be derailed, he can take solace in the fact that so many have “honored” him that he’ll be able to make ends meet by opening a Pendleton store.

For one purportedly so concerned about honoring tribal sovereignty and upholding treaties, Secretary Zinke has evidently been spending too much with Attorney General Jefferson “I don’t recall” Sessions. On the morning of the delisting announcement, June 22, Zinke testified before Congress at a House Committee on Natural Resources Oversight Hearing. Channeling his inner Kellyanne Conway, Zinke provided an “alternative fact” under oath that, even by the standards of the Trump Administration, and even within the framework of duplicity that has marked federal-Indian relations for 240-years, was stunning. Congressman Wm. Lacy Clay questioned Zinke about tribal consultation and rights in the context of grizzly delisting. “Some of the consultation has been a website, rather than personal; some where the consultation has been more notification rather than consultation,” Zinke conceded, confirming what tribal leaders have said all along, that there has been no “pre-decisional” or “meaningful government-to-government consultation” on grizzly delisting.

Congressman Clay responded that tribes, “have indicated that the Federal government, in particular the Fish and Wildlife Service, has abandoned that responsibility” in the delisting process. “In a treaty, letters, and resolutions, tribal nations have raised concerns over the science being presented by the service and the irreparable harm of tribal sovereignty, sacred site protections, treaty rights, consultation mandates, and spiritual and religious freedoms. Can you discuss your plan to honor the mandatory pre-decision and meaningful government-to-government consultation with tribes in this matter?” Clay asked. Zinke, who made notes throughout, mumbled “I will continue to live up to my obligation, I look forward to it,” before he bemoaned that the Senate hadn’t move forward with his BIA Director. “And will you commit to consult with affected tribes prior to any delisting announcement?” Clay pressed. “I will commit to that. I think it’s not only a right, it’s the law. But two things, it’s the right thing to do,” Zinke stated. It was, of course, a lie. Within a couple of hours of Zinke concluding his testimony, his Department of the Interior announced the “Delisting of the Yellowstone grizzly bear.”

In the approximately two-hour hiatus between his testimony and the announcement of the rule, Zinke didn’t “consult with affected tribes.” The department he now leads has had years to do it, and hasn’t. There has been no honoring “the mandatory pre-decision and meaningful government-to-government consultation” Rep. Clay asked about. Over fifty tribal nations, including my own, issued declarations and resolutions opposing the delisting and trophy hunting of the grizzly bear, and calling for the federal-Indian trust responsibility to be upheld, which defines “honoring” sovereignty and upholding “treaty obligations.” Some 126 tribal nations then signed the Piikani Nation-initiated The Grizzly: A Treaty of Cooperation, Cultural Revitalization and Restoration, a document Secretary Zinke is familiar with, for on March 8, Crow Nation Chairman, AJ Not Afraid, introduced it to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs with Zinke sat beside him.

Congressman Clay’s questioning should have sounded familiar to Zinke, as it was almost verbatim what Chairman Not Afraid testified to. “This treaty does not just relate to the proposed delisting and trophy hunting of the grizzly bear – a being we consider sacred and integral to our cultures – this treaty speaks to the consequences of this action if it proceeds as it has to date, and the issues that Tribal Nations stand upon, which remain at the heart of the federal-Indian trust responsibility: Tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, consultation mandates, spiritual and religious freedoms, and sacred site protections – each of which is on the verge of suffering irreparable harm if this process continues as it is presently constituted.” Should Secretary Zinke have been thrown for a Sessions, in other words, “I don’t recall,” when it came to Chairman Not Afraid’s testimony, Senators Cory Booker, Tom Udall and Bernie Sanders reminded Zinke in a letter, as did Congressmen Raul Grijalva, Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin in a rare showing of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.

“We write to urge you to honor the mandatory pre-decision and meaningful government-to-government consultation with tribes when considering the delisting of the grizzly bear from the Endangered Species Act,” begins Congressmen and Oklahoma tribal members Cole and Mullin’s letter, that also references how the Oglala Sioux Tribe has “petitioned . . . for an inquiry into FWS’s conduct” and how the Northern Arapaho “sent a Cease and Desist order to former Secretary Jewell due to the FWS’s persistent misrepresentations in the media of the tribe’s position regarding the delisting of the grizzly bear.” Central to the Oglala Sioux’s complaint are ties between a US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) official and trophy hunting juggernaut, Safari Club International, and an apparent connection to multinational energy company, Anadarko Petroleum and Gas. The official, former Acting FWS Director, Matt Hogan, who now works out of the FWS Mountain-Prairie regional office and has been FWS’s point man on grizzly delisting, was formerly Safari Club International’s chief lobbyist to Capitol Hill. At the federal-state Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meeting in Choteau, Montana on June 20, Hogan objected to being characterized as a trophy hunter, but was silent on his alleged connections to Anadarko Petroleum and Gas, which advertises itself as “one of the largest landowners and leaseholders in the state of Wyoming,” and is among the biggest campaign finance contributors to Wyoming Governor, Matt Mead, and Senators Mike Enzi and John Barrasso from Wyoming’s Congressional delegation, all of whom have aggressively promoted the grizzly delisting agenda and the dismantling of the ESA.

As the Oglala pointed out, the Wyoming politerati’s coal begrimed and oil smeared fingerprints on grizzly delisting don’t end there, as Hogan and his colleagues engaged oil and gas services giant Amec Foster Wheeler to undertake the scientific peer review of FWS’s grizzly delisting rule. Former Halliburton executive Jonathan Lewis was appointed CEO of Amec within days of the proposed rule first being published, and just in time for his new company to undertake the review. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, the godfather of Wyoming politics, was Halliburton CEO from 1995–2000. When pressed on why the FWS failed in its mandated obligations to tribes within the government’s fiduciary responsibilities, Hogan protested that FWS had at least fulfilled consultation requirements, which Zinke then exposed as false. Mailing out an alleged fifty-three stock “Dear Tribal Leader” letters does not meet the standard of “meaningful.” Fifty-three letters is seventy-three short of the tribes that have signed the treaty, and many tribes, such as ours, never received any such letters or professed overtures. On November 3, 2015, former Oglala Sioux President, John Steele, informed Interior of the same, in a statement he repeated, near verbatim, in July 2016.

In President Steele’s letters to Interior, he reminded Zinke’s new charges, “The federal government recognizes the Oglala Sioux Tribe as one of the twenty-six ‘Associated Tribes of Yellowstone,’ but it did not include the Oglala Sioux Tribe, or indeed any tribal nation, in the Conservation Strategy relative to its plans to delist the grizzly bear.” Zinke’s delisting announcement trumpeted that Conservation Strategy. The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe is also one of those ‘Associated Tribes of Yellowstone’ and we, too, were completely ignored in this delisting process, despite our declaration, our resolution, signing the Grizzly Treaty, and petition for inclusion. Denying us input is one more way that the government is attempting to sever us from our culture. They did it to our ancestors through boarding schools, and they are doing it to us today by failing to consult, hoping that if they ignore and deny us long enough we will forget vital parts of our culture, like our relationship with the grizzly bear, but we will not.

The unity movement we experienced at Standing Rock, where we gathered to protect the sacred against corporate destruction in the form of the Dakota Access Pipeline, can be traced to the sacred grizzly bear. Northern Cheyenne Sun Dance Priest, Don Shoulderblade, began GOAL Tribal Coalition to oppose grizzly delisting and defend tribal rights, a movement that quickly grew to include fifty tribes from the four directions. When people heard about the crisis at Standing Rock, tribal unity was already in the air. The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Oglala Sioux Tribe, and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe were among the first to raise our voices for our sacred relative. Zinke, our now self-appointed “champion,” didn’t stand with, but stood against, Standing Rock. When President Trump nominated Zinke for Secretary of the Interior, Blackfeet Chairman Harry Barnes called it “a great day for Montana” and said Zinke was “an ally of the Blackfeet.” On March 10, during Zinke’s first official visit to his home state as Secretary, he held a meet-and-greet with Glacier National Park staff and members of the BTBC in West Glacier, Montana. There, after Barnes oversaw the presentation of a pipe to Zinke, the new Secretary, our self-appointed “champion,” told the media that he thought “clearing protesters” at Standing Rock was a “spectacular job.”

As a victim of that “spectacular job” I take a different view. I was arrested with many others at Standing Rock, not because we committed a crime, but because we stood to defend our lands, our cultures, our ancestors, and seven future generations from further devastation and corporate exploitation. In October 2016, I was cuffed with plastic cable ties and dumped on the side of Highway 1806 for what seemed like an age in a fog of percussion grenades and screams, but it was probably closer to an hour. They positioned us so that we had to watch as our tipis were bulldozed by DAPL security, and then we were herded into a ditch where they wrote numbers on our forearms. Until I made bond, I was #137, not Chairman Brandon Sazue of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe. The process of dehumanization underway, we were forced onto a bus and driven through a throng of celebratory DAPL workers. Forty-five minutes later, we were being unloaded in a hanger in Morton County. Before I noticed the cages, I was hit by a wall of sound, the screams of our people reverberating around the storage space that was now a makeshift Morton County jail. We were processed like livestock and shunted into the cages that were more dog kennels than cells, twenty of us per kennel. Behind us, to the north, hung targets in human form, taser tips protruding for the silhouettes and scattered about the floor. To the south was a huge tarp, behind which they held the women. And then our ordeal began. We now know that what Zinke described as a “spectacular job” was spearheaded by TigerSwan, a private defense contractor that was employed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and was engaged to crush our people at Standing Rock, whom, TigerSwan ludicrously reported, “generally followed the jihadist insurgency model.”

It is difficult for me to reconcile giving Zinke a pipe and anointing him an “ally” when you had claimed to “stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters from the Sioux Nation” in opposition to DAPL, as Barnes and the BTBC did in a letter to Standing Rock Chairman, Dave Archambault, II. To “stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters from the Sioux Nation” is not achieved by doing Zinke’s bidding, who you may see as your “ally,” but who profits from the fracking misery of the Bakken, the oil fields the Dakota Access Pipeline has been constructed to serve. Zinke’s main campaign financier is Oasis Petroleum, one of the main operators and beneficiaries of the Bakken, the oil from which DAPL now carries and leaks. “We need to invest in infrastructure projects like the Keystone pipeline,” Zinke said, and with former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson now running Trump’s State Department, Zinke is getting another pipeline tribes don’t want, the environmentally catastrophic Keystone-XL.

Ryan Zinke has a record, so his betrayal on the grizzly should be no surprise. Indicative of the “revisionism of Ryan Zinke” is his sudden portrayal as a champion for Native women. After the heinous 2016 murder of RoyLynn Rides Horse, Zinke sponsored the House companion to the senate resolution introduced by Senators Tester and Daines to designate May 5, 2017, as National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. Yet, in 2014, Zinke had opposed $344 million in funding for Violence Against Women programs in Indian Country, and sought to repeal the Indian Health Care Improvement Act that aids not only the victims of violence, but all the most vulnerable in the community. How, then, is Zinke a “champion” of Native women? Or men or children, given that he supported a budget proposed by Speaker Paul Ryan that would have cut $637 million from Indian Health Services. A former Navy SEAL, Zinke was once widely criticized in Montana’s press for fundraising emails that suggested he played a role in the killing of Osama bin Laden. Zinke had retired from the military three years before the Abbottabad raid. There’s nothing worthy of a blanket in political expediency.

In contrast to the platform the NCAI has given him, Zinke’s record reveals that he has a narrow definition of tribal sovereignty, one that revolves around supporting oil, gas and mining operations on tribal lands. Zinke has yet to meet an extractive fossil fuel industry plan for a reservation that he didn’t like, which should be no surprise, as the oil and gas industry is the third-largest financial contributor to his political rise. Zinke has a 3% lifetime voting record on the environment; or, in other words, has voted against Mother Earth 97% of the time. In Congress, Zinke voted for the Native American Energy Act (NAEA), and the Indian Coal Production Tax Credit. Opponents fear NAEA will weaken the National Environmental Policy Act. “This could incentivize energy companies to partner with tribes simply for the benefit of skirting NEPA and profiting from restricted judicial review,” Congressman Grijalva warned at the time. NAEA was simply an insight into what a Trump Administration would bring, the privatization of tribal lands for extractive industry exploitation, a policy initiative that, unlike their Obamacare repeal, is no secret. Zinke may delist the grizzly, but you cannot repeal the sacred. It is no coincidence that the spiritual reawakening of Native people on this continent has coincided with the modest recovery of the grizzly since the 1970s, a recovery that could end with delisting and trophy hunting in a return to the frontier mentality of the 1870s.

“This achievement stands as one of America’s great conservation successes,” Zinke crowed in his delisting announcement. Only in the warped narcissism of this peculiar frat house that is the near exclusive club of white, middle-aged to aging, western state and federal officials, can a decline from approximately 100,000 grizzlies pre-Lewis and Clark to fewer than 700 surviving in Greater Yellowstone today be lauded as yet another example of American exceptionalism.

Chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe of the Oceti Sakowin, the Great Sioux Nation, Brandon Sazue was elected to his third-term as chairman of the tribe in 2016. A consistent defender of tribal rights and sacred lands, in 2009 Chairman Sazue camped on Crow Creek Sioux land through the depths of winter to prevent the IRS from seizing some 7,100 tribal acres. He was on the frontlines during the DAPL resistance at Standing Rock.