‘Heal the past’: first Native American confirmed to oversee national parks

Charles “Chuck” F Sams III made history this week in becoming the first-ever Native American confirmed to lead the National Park Service.

Sams, an enrolled tribal member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, received unanimous consent by the US Senate on Thursday after being nominated by Joe Biden in August.

Sam’s confirmation comes nearly 150 years after US leaders began the practice of establishing national parks upon ancestral lands that were often violently seized from Indigenous communities.

Now, with the park service managing more than 400 areas across every state, along with the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, some Indigenous leaders see Sams’ appointment as a potential path toward healing from old but deeply rooted wounds.

“I see this as an opportunity to reconcile that past, to heal that past, and to recognize the deep knowledge and wisdom that a Native American brings to that post,” said Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians and vice-president of the Quinault Indian Nation.

In 1872, President Ulysses S Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law, creating the country’s first national park. The establishment of this site and many others in the ensuing years have been hailed as a triumph, but came at a cost.

In an interview with the Guardian, Jeanette Wolfley, a University of New Mexico School of Law professor, explained that members of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes once inhabited the area now known as Yellowstone national park. She said the park’s establishment had had a “devastating” effect on the community as members were barred from returning.

Today, some tribal reservations actually overlap with national park spaces. For example, the Canyon de Chelly national monument is located within the Navajo Nation.

Recognizing the history of these parks, Jonathan Jarvis, the last Senate-approved National Park Service director (he left the post in 2017), said over the last 20 years, there had been an effort by park service leaders to establish stronger relationships with Indigenous residents. During his tenure, for example, the agency restored the rights of traditionally affiliated nations to collect plants within a park’s boundaries.

Sams, who has over 25 years of experience working in state and Indigenous governments as well as the non-profit natural resource and conservation management fields, could expand on this work.

Jarvis said Sams would be responsible for implementing Biden’s park service agenda and would probably need to address such key issues as the parks’ major maintenance backlog and infrastructure needs, the impact of the climate crisis on these spaces and the parks’ response to Covid. But he will also have the opportunity to set his own vision for the parks.

He could further boost Indigenous nations’ ability to access key swaths of traditional vegetation by encouraging park officials to reach out to them directly to help establish collection agreements, explained Jarvis. And, although the park service already allows Indigenous people to access these spaces for ceremonies, he could issue a director’s order making this process easier.

Jarvis said there was huge potential for Sams to “look where there are opportunities for true co-management, true stewardship in partnership with tribes” of these national park spaces.

Last month, Sams said in a statement as part of his nomination hearing in front of the Senate energy and natural resources committee: “If confirmed, I will bring this spirit of consultation to my service as director. I look forward to consulting with neighboring communities, stakeholders, local, state and tribal governments, and members of Congress, even when the conversations and topics are challenging.”

But for some Indigenous people, healing from historical injustice is not simply a matter of boosting consultations or access to national parks; it’s a matter of returning the lands.

Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said she would like to see national parks returned to Indigenous people. But she cautioned that returning these spaces would need to be an individualized process.

“Tribes are unique and distinct. And the national parks in some parts of the country may have tribal nations who are prepared and ready to assume management over those and others may not,” she said.

Kat Brigham, chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation board of trustees, said she was extremely happy at the prospect of Sams taking his new position. She said she expected him to lead from “the tribal perspective”, which she described as “taking care of the land, so the land can take care of you”.

She said she hoped to see him help to spread awareness of the true history of these sites. She gave the example of Celilo Falls in Oregon, which was once a great gathering space for Indigenous people.

“He knows, for decades, that the tribes have been trying to get the federal and state agencies to start looking at things from a tribal perspective,” she said. “I think he will be asking us a lot more questions. And they’ll be involved more.”

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