From dominance to stewardship: Chuck Sams’ Indigenous approach to the NPS

The first Native national parks director talks tribal co-management, historical accuracy, harassment, and the fallacy of “wilderness.”

Last December, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Chuck Sams (Umatilla) made history when he shook hands with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) and became the first Native person to lead the National Park Service. He is also the agency’s first permanent director since 2017. Sams, who is Cayuse and Walla Walla, is enrolled with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation — a true Native Oregonian. HCN sat down with Sams to hear about his approach to his position.


This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

HCN: Last year, Congress met with tribes to discuss co-management of federal lands. Now tribal co-management is happening in Bears Ears National Monument. How do tribal nations, the National Park Service and the public benefit from co-management? 

CS: Tribes benefit because they’re exercising either their treaty rights or pre-existing Indigenous rights that they’ve always had, managing these lands for thousands of years. But more importantly, it is the recognition by the federal government, through Secretarial Order 3403, that we have a trust responsibility as a federal agency to ensure that we’re upholding those rights for tribes.

It’s a very exciting time. When I look across the service, we currently have over 80 different agreements where we’re doing some type of co-management, co-stewardship, or partnership with tribes. This gets them back on the landscape where they have that reciprocating relationship between the flora and the fauna that they’ve managed as horticulturalists since time immemorial.

HCN: Can we expect this list of co-managed parks and monuments to expand? What are some provable benchmarks needed to justify expansion?

CS: We will see them expand. We’re going to watch this continue to grow. I think the benefits we’re going to see are recovery and strengthening of both the flora and fauna. We’re also going to see ways to look at climate adaptation and climate resiliency, by bringing traditional ecological knowledge to the forefront.

At Acadia (National Park), we’re working on sweetgrass propagation with the tribes. We’re working with the tribes of the Seminole down in the Everglades on traditional plant use and propagation. At Yellowstone, Superintendent Cam Sholly works with 49 different tribes who have an interest in bison.

Along with co-stewardship and co-management, there has to be capacity building, and we’re going to have to work with Congress to ensure that funding becomes available to tribes.

HCN: When you were nominated, we asked tribal leaders what they wanted from you. One answer was signage and visitor engagement illuminating Native histories of the parks without sanitizing dispossession. Non-Natives can still visit these places without realizing they had to be emptied before they could become parks. How far are we from implementing those kinds of presentations? 

CS: With tribal communities and other people of color, we want to ensure that everybody actually sees themselves in the parks. So we’re looking at that with tribes, of course, but we’re also looking at it with the African American community, the Latino community, the Asian community, the LGBTQ (community), to ensure that they can tell their story in the parks. They will still go through rigorous academic review. That’s part of the process that the National Park Service has done so well.

With tribal communities and other people of color, we want to ensure that everybody actually sees themselves in the parks.

One of the best examples I’ve seen in my own lifetime is at
Wallowa-Whitman Mission. We’ve seen the story go from a “massacre” to really telling a broader history of what Dr. Marcus Whitman did when he set up his mission in Waiilatpu Country, the country of “the people of the rye grass,” the Cayuse. We’ve also seen signage change to talk about tribes in the present tense, and to help drive folks to the idea that (tribes) are co-managers and co-stewards of these important places.

HCN: Some publications have said we’re “loving the parks to death” with high visitor rates. This aligns with a non-Native worldview that sees humans as separate from nature. Do you think a shift to a more Native, reciprocal view of nature would improve human impact on the parks, and what could the Park Service do to encourage that shift in thinking?

CS: Absolutely. Man is part of the natural world, and therefore we must figure out that reciprocal relationship that we have to ensure that we protect and preserve that.

As I go around the country and have conversations with folks, I remind them that wilderness is a colonial, Western European ideal. What people call “wild,” we’ve called home for thousands of years. And there is literally no word that I can find when I talk with Indigenous tribes around the states that has an equivalent of the word “wild.” Among my own people, there is Chinook Jargon, and the word skookum. But skookum means “crooked,” anything that’s just not straight, and doesn’t necessarily mean “wild.” We never refer to the land in that way. Once we remove that idea (and see) that these places were actually managed, maybe not through agricultural purposes, but through horticultural purposes, and that reciprocal relationship with humans and nature are important for sustainability, we can have a much stronger stewardship value, rather than a dominance value over the landscape.

HCN: We have something similar in Choctaw. I’ve tried to find a word for “wild” in our dictionaries. There is a word, but it really means “shy,” which is so different from the idea of “wild” and its connotations of “ferocious” and “untamed.” It reveals a very different worldview, doesn’t it?

CS: It does. I’ve been very fortunate in my travels. I’ve worked (with) over half the federally recognized tribes in the United States in the last 25 years. And in my discussions with tribes, most of them say, “Well, we have a word for ‘unbalanced,’ but we don’t necessarily have a word for ‘wild.’”

HCN: How do people respond when you challenge this idea of wilderness and talk about how that’s not a Native concept?

CS: It’s mixed. The National Park Service does a wonderful job in its interpretations. Our job is not to tell you what to think. Our job is to help you become a critical thinker. We have the largest outside classrooms in the United States, in managing 85 million acres. And so I think it’s important that we bring these conversations forward, and we let people think for themselves to determine how that relationship is going to play itself out.

Our job is not to tell you what to think. Our job is to help you become a critical thinker. 

HCN: Last year, about a month before you were appointed, our magazine published a report called the Voices Tour Report, which the Park Service had conducted in 2018. It revealed a widespread culture of sexual and racial harassment, tokenism and white supremacy amongst park employees. After we published it, more people came forward with stories of harassment, discrimination and assault by colleagues while working for the parks. What specific actions has the agency taken to overhaul its systems and protect people of color, women and LGBTQ+ people working in the Park Service?

CS: I laid out a couple of different priorities when I first came on board. One, of course, is ensuring that our staff have a voice and an advocate through the director. The other is, of course, looking at our human resources and how we interact to ensure people are respected at every level. I’m very happy and pleased to say that when we laid out these priorities, the National Leadership Council, which are all the senior members of both senior superintendents, the associate directors and the regional directors, are very strong in wanting to make social change to ensure that people are being held accountable at multiple levels when we get these reports.

When I see these reports coming up, we’re trying to make sure that they’re acted upon quickly and fairly, and that they’re well-investigated, that the staff have the resources to do those types of investigations, which includes working with our law enforcement rangers and the U.S. Park Police. And that those investigative responsibilities are being followed up on when there’s been a crime or harassment, and that we are reinvigorating our EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) staff so that they have all the staff necessary, so that they can conduct their investigations fairly and openly and people can know that they’re getting a report back. Because what I understood when I looked at this is that there was communication going up, issues may have been dealt with, but it also may not have been reported back in an appropriate way.

HCN: Being a Native person, and also a U.S. citizen who loves the landscapes of this beautiful continent, I feel very conflicted when I see the Indian arrowhead in the Park Service logo. What are your thoughts about the logo?

CS: I think it does give a nod to the tribes who are here since time immemorial. I look at it more in a positive light. And I think that that allows us to tell that broader story, because inside the arrow is the natural landscape. And so I look at it as the idea that we’re finally bringing back full circle their ideas around co-management and traditional ecological knowledge.

HCN: What is it like to have one foot in your tribal community and one in D.C.? And how do the rising generation of Native leaders balance their responsibility to their tribal communities with the need to be active within the U.S. government?

CS: First and foremost, if you have a strong cultural upbringing, elders and teachers to help you understand and ground you among your people first, I think (that) is extremely important. It does take a lot of balance between the values that you have at home and the values that you’re going to see a federal government has and the responsibilities of that federal government.

And you can find that balance. It’s not living in two worlds. The late Wilma Mankiller once told me, when I was telling her I was living in two worlds, how wrong I was. I’m living in one world. I live in my Native world; it’s been influenced by an outside group of people who have come into my world, but it’s still my world. I’m responsible for finding that balance.

I’m trying to work, again, (at) getting us back in balance, ensuring that we go from a structure that really was about dominance, to one that is about stewardship. What I see is a younger generation of rangers and staff coming up who are also striving for that balance, wanting to be the good stewards of those resources while ensuring that there’s a human presence. 

Note: This story was updated to correct a reference to the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). Originally, we noted it as the EOC (emergency operations center).

B. ‘Toastie’ Oaster (they/them) is an award-winning journalist and a staff writer for 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.