A letter to the Trump official who instructed a Native woman to “be nice”

On Monday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visited Bears Ears National Monument, where he showed surprising disrespect towards an indigenous woman, an organizer from the non-profit PANDOS, trying to ask him about his failure to meet with Native American leaders who support the monument. (You can watch the video below.) It came across as patronizing and sexist, yet one more example of a federal official marginalizing American Indian voices. I have sent the following letter to Secretary Zinke in protest.

(Context: Bears Ears is the first monument created with significant input and support from American Indian tribes, but as part of their attack on all things Obama, Trump and Zinke are considering rescinding its protected status.)

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Dear Secretary Zinke,

I just saw the video of you patronizing indigenous organizer Cassandra Begay at Bears Ears National Monument, pointing your finger and telling her, “Be nice. Be nice. Don’t be rude.”

I am writing as a constituent, as a Christian seminarian and fellow Protestant, and as another white man from the northern Rockies. Speaking for myself, I am appalled by your behavior.

No federal employee, especially the leader of the Department of the Interior, should ever lecture Native Americans on how to behave. From forced relocation, the boarding schools, and the Ghost Dance ban to the Dawes Act, the Indian Reorganization Act, and termination, U.S. history is full of white authorities (especially in the DOI) assuming they know what’s best for American Indians, imposing their own cultural norms upon the tribes, and telling Americans Indians how to behave. Mr. Secretary, I believe that you abused your authority and subtly added to this harmful history when you told Ms. Begay to “be nice” in her capacity as an indigenous organizer.

Furthermore, even apart from the shadow of federal-Indian history, no man should ever patronize any woman, especially a woman of color, in such a way. You may not have meant for your actions to be so blatantly sexist, but your tone and your words contributed to a long and exponentially harmful pattern of white men patronizing women of color, an injustice that these women routinely face in a way that you and I do not. It can shape their lives in a way that you and I are privileged not to share, giving us extra responsibility to be respectful in our interactions with them, regardless of a specific conversation’s individual context. The playing field is not level; as both a white man and as an authority figure, you already have the upper hand.

I understand that you may have felt hectored when Ms. Begay continued to ask questions as you moved through the crowd, but the public has a right to demand answers from our government. It is the job you signed up for. Authorities such as yourself do not have the right to dictate the terms of advocacy to their constituents, especially not where there is a history of oppression.

Finally, I would suggest that you consider your own advice: Be nice to the tribes. According to High Country News on May 4, you have not met with leaders from the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, or Pueblo of Zuni to discuss Bears Ears. Stop being rude to them, and accept their request for a meeting. (There is also a certain irony in pointing one’s finger while admonishing rudeness.) It is time to heed your new responsibilities regarding the “trust relationship” and to sit down at length with these tribes to listen, truly listen, to their concerns, including about Bears Ears. It is not enough to “give Utah a voice;” you must also take your government-to-government relationship with the tribes seriously.

I look forward to your apology to Ms. Begay, to the news that you have agreed to meet with the tribes at length, and to an improvement in your Department’s relationships with them. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Nathan S. Empsall

  • Episcopal postulant for holy orders
  • Master of Divinity candidate at Yale Divinity School, 2019
  • Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, 2019