How tribal leaders want Chuck Sams to lead the Park Service

The Umatilla leader would be the first Native person in charge of the agency, which has a thorny history with tribes.

 

In August, the Biden administration nominated Charles “Chuck” Sams III to lead the National Park Service. Sams, a U.S. Navy veteran who was, most recently, the executive director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, also worked as an adjunct professor at both Georgetown University and Whitman College, where he taught about treaties between sovereign governments. He’s currently the sole tribal member on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

The nomination has so far received a positive response from tribal government leaders. In an email to HCN, Ken Ramirez, chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, praised Sams’ experience in working with sovereign tribal governments as a “critical resource as tribes endeavor to work with the Park Service on cultural, environmental, conservation and other matters of mutual importance to the U.S. and Indian Country.” Echoing that sentiment, the Easter Shoshone Tribe's Business Council Chairman John St. Clair wrote that tribal nations not only need to have representation in the Biden administration, they need “someone who understands treaty rights, sovereignty and tribal government.”

Sams’ nomination arrives at a crucial time for the National Park Service. If he’s confirmed, Sams will be the agency’s first full-time leader since Jon Jarvis retired in 2017; under President Donald Trump, it was led by a series of short-term acting and deputy directors. Sams would not only be the first Native official in history to lead the Park Service, he would work under Deb Haaland, a Pueblo of Laguna citizen and the Interior Department’s first Native secretary. This places him in the unique position of being tasked with bringing stability back to the agency even as tribal leaders are relying on him to increase both Indigenous visibility and stewardship within the parks system. 

White Mountain Apache Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood sees Sams’ nomination as an opportunity to improve relations between tribal governments and the federal government. “I would like to see consultation with tribes on decisions impacting areas of Native significance,” said Lee-Gatewood. “We have a voice.” She added that the White Mountain Apache are seeking co-management policies and other ways of sharing decision-making power over park lands with the Park Service, and are also promoting the use of traditional stewardship methods.

“I would like to see consultation with tribes on decisions impacting areas of Native significance.”

St. Clair would like the agency to permit “tribes to have designated areas at national parks to display their connections.” He said that the Eastern Shoshone have already met with Yellowstone staff this year and asked for special areas to be established, where each tribe that has legacy connections to Yellowstone’s land can “display and demonstrate those historic and spiritual connections while the park is open each year.” A nationwide policy of educating visitors about the Native presence in the national parks through interactive media and displays, he said, would improve relationships between the Park Service and Native people, and would help “bring better understanding and education of the profound history us Indigenous people have on America’s most beautiful lands.”

That would mean acknowledging the Park Service’s history of dispossession and forced removal of Native peoples. Since its founding in 1916, the agency has been charged with overseeing 423 sites altogether — monuments, battlefields, preserves and other sites as well as 63 official national parks. The cost of this expansion has routinely been paid by Indian Country. “The history, pertaining to tribal histories, is one that is not as pleasant,” Lee-Gatewood told HCN. 

Before it could establish any national parks, the federal government first had to empty them of their human inhabitants. President Ulysses S. Grant ejected the Shoshone from their homes to designate Yellowstone as the world’s first national park in 1872. In Yosemite Valley, park officials invited some Miwuk residents to remain in their homeland as park employees, if they agreed to dress up as Plains Natives and perform for tourists. More broadly, national parks have been instrumental in reinforcing a continent-wide capitalist system that separates people from the land and commodifies “wild” spaces as recreational territory primarily accessible to well-off white Americans.

From both a policy perspective and a historical one, the weight of potentially having a Native official leading the agency has not been lost on tribal leaders.  “The Shoshone people first roamed the lands of many Wyoming national parks, including its biggest — Yellowstone National Park,” St. Clair said. “As the aboriginal people of the region, we know the significance of protecting and advocating for the sacred sites. We expect Mr. Sams will use his experience as a tribal leader to advocate for us and all tribes across Indian Country.”

Lee-Gatewood, who said she’s excited at Sams’ nomination, pointed out that he would be entrusted with the preservation of landscapes that Native Americans shaped for millennia. “Behind us is a history,” Lee-Gatewood said, citing the heroism, principles and faith of Indigenous ancestors. “Before us is a greater opportunity to forge ahead with faith, and those same principles our ancestors had.” Continuing to build upon positive relations, she said, takes effort and communication. "The work has never been easy, but it is worth it.”

B. ‘Toastie’ Oaster (they/them) is an award-winning journalist and an editorial intern at High Country News writing from the Pacific Northwest. They’re a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Email them at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, ARIZONA CHAPTER
    What We Can Achieve Together: Arizona's Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure...
  • CAPACITY BUILDING PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Capacity Building Program Manager works directly with the business unit's Arizona Healthy Cities Program Director to advance the Healthy...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND OFFICE MANAGER - FRIENDS OF THE INYO
    Friends of the Inyo - Donor database management & reporting, IT/HR, and office administrative support. PT or FT. Partly remote OK but some in-office time...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
  • GRAPHIC AND DIGITAL DESIGNER
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Southern Nevada Conservancy Board of Directors announces an outstanding opportunity for a creative leader to continue building this organization. SNC proudly supports Nevada's public...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.