I was a career senior executive and climate policy advisor at the Interior Department before I was involuntarily reassigned by the Trump Administration. In my role I had been focused on leading an interagency response to the slow-moving disaster in America’s Arctic, where Alaska Natives were faced daily with the impacts of a rapidly changing climate. With the safety of Americans at risk, I was stunned that the new Trump Administration would so callously leave these people to their own devices.
I should not have been surprised.
I was only one of the 33 senior executives Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reassigned that night last June, and recently-released internal DOI documents that I requested months ago (and had to sue the agency to obtain) have shown that nearly half of the reassigned senior executives were minorities, a disproportionate number of them were women, and a full third of them were American Indian, as recently reported in Talking Points Memo.
This is appalling for many reasons, and not least because Interior plays an important role as the federal trustee for American Indians and Alaska Natives, (who, incidentally, make up 10% of the Interior workforce). For this reason there are special rules that provide an Indian preference in hiring for some positions, government-to-government consultation policies that require special effort to seek out and incorporate input from Tribes and Alaska Natives, and a long list of programs and activities—including my work with the Alaska Natives facing climate impacts—dedicated to their well-being.
Secretary Zinke, notoriously ignorant of the DOI mission, was briefed on these issues. During his address to all employees on day one of his new job as Secretary he included “American Indian sovereignty” as one of his top three priorities. Several weeks later, however, he inexplicably dropped this item from his list of top priorities and from his talking points when he addressed us at Interior headquarters once more. The anti-Indian tilt in last June’s mass reassignment action was just another insult to the American Indians that work for him.
Zinke wasn’t done insulting American Indians yet, though. In December, 2017 he traveled to Utah with President Trump to tell Americans that they were going to enact the largest reduction of protected lands in American history by shrinking the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments. This announcement was a slap in the face to the leadership of the four primary tribes who had advocated for protecting Bears Ears, a sacred area with one of the highest concentrations of archeological sites in the world. Subsequent document disclosures have shown that Zinke lied when he said there was no connection between this action and the oil and gas industry’s ambitions in the region.
Zinke’s neglect of the agency’s responsibilities toward American Indians and Alaska Natives even extends to grant programs that are meant to directly serve struggling tribal communities. The Tribal Resilience Grant Program was one of the few programs intended to help tribal communities specifically address their own resilience in the face of a changing climate and other threats, and he has refused to disperse the dollars that Congress has appropriated for this program. In 2017 DOI declined to announce a request for proposals, and the dollars still languish at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It remains to be seen if Zinke will be held accountable for this illegal act—known as impoundment—and forced by Congress to disperse those dollars in 2018.
While he seems to have it out for Indians in particular, Zinke has made no effort to prioritize diversity more generally. He was recently quoted as saying “I don’t care about diversity” and a recent scan of the DOI website found that the pages on diversity training have been cut back and in some cases eliminated.
It’s no secret that the Federal Government is a perennial laggard on workplace diversity—79% of Federal senior executives are white, for example—but at the Interior Department, the numbers of employed minorities are staggeringly low. Black representation at DOI is 5.6%, the lowest of any cabinet agency. Every Administration in recent memory has made efforts, some better than others, to improve these abysmal numbers, until now. It was almost comical, in a sad way, when Zinke’s spokesperson boasted that Zinke clearly cared about diversity because he had appointed two women and an African American to senior positions. Interior has 70,000 employees.
With his statements and actions, Secretary Zinke is stoking concerns that this administration is actively rejecting minorities and discriminating against American Indians and Alaska Natives, and that the 30% of his employees who belong to a minority will be singled out. Congressional staff have even speculated about which employees Zinke was referring to when he stated that 30% of DOI’s career staff are not “loyal to the flag” and one member of Congress has suggested that Zinke seeks to create a “lily-white Department”.
Until now, the media and public discourse has focused on Zinke’s efforts to stifle science, break down the agency, and hand public lands over to his oil and gas cronies. Certainly these actions will have direct consequences for American health and safety and the protection of our natural legacy. Compounding the mission failure, however, these recent revelations about Zinke’s discriminatory actions and lack of support for diversity in the workplace will have direct and tragic consequences for how one of America’s biggest federal agencies serves its employees, American Indians, and the American people.
It’s impossible to know what Zinke’s intentions are, but it’s clear that his actions are having a deleterious effect on the agency’s diversity, morale, and effectiveness. Rather than dismissing diversity and demeaning American Indians, Secretary Zinke should step up efforts to increase diversity and show that he is proud to serve and support the people who were making America great for millennia before the white man arrived.