« Return to this article

Know the West

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.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/articles/tribal-affairs-the-blackfeet-nation-is-trying-to-open-its-own-national-park]

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.”

Brian Oaster (they/them) is an editorial intern at High Country News and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. They are an award-winning investigative journalist living in the Pacific Northwest. Email them at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editorSee our letters to the editor policy.