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'Coming Full Circle': Native Tapped To Lead National Parks
by Kalle Benallie - Indian Country Today
Another historic (and ironic) Native nomination for the Department of Interior
Portrait of Charles F. "Chuck" Sams III. (Photo by Ben Lonergan/East Oregonian)

For the first time, a Native American may become the director of the National Park Service.

President Joe Biden nominated Charles F. "Chuck" Sams III Wednesday and will be considered by the U.S. Senate. If confirmed, he will be the 19th permanent director of the National Park Service.

A National Park Service director was last confirmed by the Senate during the Obama Administration.

The park service is a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Interior where Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, made history by becoming the first Native American cabinet secretary.

"The diverse experience that Chuck brings to the National Park Service will be an incredible asset as we work to conserve and protect our national parks to make them more accessible for everyone...the outdoors are for everyone, and we have an obligation to protect them for generations to come," she said in a statement.

US Interior Press Team

The White House today announced the intent to nominate Charles F. "Chuck" Sams III as Director of the National Park Service. Chuck will lead @Interior's work to conserve and protect our national parks to make them more accessible for everyone.

White House Announces Nomination of Charles F. Sams III as National Park Service Director
The White House today announced the intent to nominate Charles F. "Chuck" Sams III as Director of the National Park Service. The nomination will now be considered by the U.S. Senate.

The National Park Service oversees more than 131,000 square miles of parks, monuments, battlefields and other landmarks. It employs approximately 20,000 people in permanent, temporary and seasonal jobs, according to its website.

Sams is Cayuse and Walla Walla, of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. He previously served as the tribe's interim executive director earlier this year.

Kat Brigham, the tribal nation's board of trustees chairman, congratulated Sams on the nomination.

"This is a historical moment for America and is a monumental milestone for tribal people throughout Indian Country. We applaud Mr. Sams on his nomination and are optimistic to see his leadership continuing to conserve and protect the precious resources within the National Park Service," Brigham said. "Mr. Sams is aware of how important it is to take care of the land for today and future generations."

The U.S. Navy veteran currently serves as a council member to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which he was appointed by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.

He has "worked in state and Tribal governments and the non-profit natural resource and conservation management fields for more than 25 years," said the Interior in a statement.

His long list of roles, in addition to interim director, include:

  • President and chief executive officer of the Indian Country Conservancy
  • Executive director for the Umatilla Tribal Community Foundation
  • National director of the Tribal & Native Lands Program for the Trust for Public Land
  • Executive director for the Columbia Slough Watershed Council
  • Executive director for the Community Energy Project
  • President and chief executive officer for the Earth Conservation Corps

Holly Cook Macarro, partner at Spirit Rock Consulting LLC and political commentator, said the nomination is another addition to defining President Biden's legacy in Indian Country.

Macarro, Red Lake Ojibwe, called the nomination ironic like Secretary Haaland's nomination because national parks are lost Native lands that have been affected by "treaty violations, theft and other forms."

But Sams' possible leadership of the National Parks Service "once again feels like things are coming full circle."

She said that the youth could be significantly impacted by having visual representation of a position they might want to obtain some day. Tribal governments and spiritual leaders may also benefit from his appointment.

"There's someone on the very top who understands the tribal perspective and is going to bring it to the table in a way that we haven't seen before," Macarro said.

She added Sams' appointment is a result of Biden's push to have greater representation in his administration and Haaland's commitment to have a more diverse workforce in the Interior.

Macarro mentioned that this position is not traditionally occupied by Native Americans unlike the Indian Health Service, which currently has an acting director.

She cites two other non-traditional appointments: Robert Anderson, Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, who was tapped as the solicitor of the Interior and Janie Hipp, Chickasaw, who was appointed as USDA General Counsel.

"I am hopeful that we will continue to see more as these positions get filled and I certainly think we will," she said.

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Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at Benallie was once the opening act for a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas.

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