Interior Secretary and Spokane Tribe discuss opioid crisis, Grand Coulee Dam compensation

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke met with the Spokane Tribal Business Council on Thursday to discuss the national opioid crisis and the tribe’s efforts to seek compensation for damages caused by the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

According to 2014 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the opioid overdose death rate among Native Americans was the highest of any racial demographic, with 8.4 deaths per 100,000 people.

Zinke and the council discussed, among other things, ways that the Interior Department could be involved in combating opioid abuse within the 573 tribal nations. He mentioned utilizing law enforcement resources under the Department’s purview – such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Bureau of Land Management– but emphasized a focus on finding community solutions that address each tribe’s circumstance.

“We strongly believe the best treatment is at the community and the tribal level,” he said.

The Spokane Tribal Business Council asked the Secretary about legislation that would seek to compensate the Spokane Tribe for damages incurred during the construction of the dam, which he visited later Thursday afternoon. He also met with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

For more than a decade, legislative attempts to compensate the tribe have failed to pass both chambers of Congress in the same year.

When the dam was built, thousands of acres of land owned by the Spokane and Colville tribes were flooded. In 1994, Congress passed approved compensation for the Colville tribes. The Spokane tribe says their compensation is overdue.

“So, every year, we continue to go back and ask our Congressional leaders to support that legislation and we also ask the administration, including Department of Interior, to support our efforts as we move forward with that,” said Carol Evans, the chairwoman of the Spokane Tribal Business Council.

A bill brought by Washington Democratic Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray in May is the latest attempt. The Spokane Reservation Equitable Compensation Act passed the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in February.

When asked if he supported the existing legislation, Zinke did not respond with a yes or no, but he did say he has heightened responsibility, as Interior Secretary, to right the situation.

“Clearly the tribe, in my judgment, was wronged,” Zinke said. “My job is to meet with the leadership in the Senate and the House and emphasize that the Department of Interior stands by our duty of being the champion of the [tribal] nations,” he said.