Indianz.Com > News > National Park Service finally gains a new leader with first Native director
Charles “Chuck” F. Sams III and Deb Haaland
Charles “Chuck” F. Sams III, left, shakes hands with Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., after being ceremonially sworn in as the Director of the National Park Service on December 16, 2021. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior
National Park Service finally gains a new leader with first Native director
Thursday, December 16, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The National Park Service has a permanent leader for the first time in five years and it’s a historic one thanks to President Joe Biden.

For the first time since the agency began in 1916, a tribal citizen will be serving as director. Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III, who hails from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, was ceremonially sworn into the job on Thursday by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who herself is breaking new ground as the first Native person in a presidential cabinet.

“Everyone should have access to the outdoors no matter where they live, how much money they have, or what their background is,” Haaland said in a news release. “Chuck Sams understands the importance of connecting people to nature, and I am thrilled to work with him as the Interior Department works to make our national park system accessible to all Americans.”

“Under his leadership, the National Park Service will continue to protect our public lands for generations to come and make critical investments in the vast infrastructure that sustains our public lands and national parks,” added Haaland, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna.

As director, Sams will oversee millions of acres of national parks and monuments, many of which lie within tribal homelands. He is bringing his decades of experience in tribal government, natural resource management and conservation management to the job.

“I am honored to serve as Director of the National Park Service and thank President Biden and Secretary Haaland for entrusting in me the care of one of America’s greatest gifts: our National Park system,” Sams said in the news release.

“I am also incredibly proud to work with the dedicated employees of the National Park Service,” Sams continued. “I have no doubt that together, we’ll be able to expand access to the outdoors, protect America’s public lands, and upgrade our nation’s infrastructure system through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.”

Indianz.Com Video: Charles “Chuck” F. Sams III Opening Statement – National Park Service

Sams was announced as President Biden’s NPS pick on August 13. His nomination was sent to the U.S. Senate on September 13.

Sams went before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources for his confirmation hearing on October 19. He told lawmakers that improving the consultation process with tribes would be one of his priorities.

“In Indian Country, we expect an open discussion with the federal government prior to making a decision, not after the fact,” Sams said in his opening statement. “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.”

The committee favorably reported the nomination on November 2 and Sams was confirmed by a voice vote on November 18. No one in the Senate objected.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon): Confirmation of Oregonian Chuck Sams to Lead National Parks Service

“Chuck Sams has been a longtime Umatilla tribal leader, and there he has served in a variety of roles,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), a senior member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. “He is a member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, working with officials from across the Pacific Northwest. He is a veteran of the U.S. Navy.”

“He is a role model — a role model — in so many respects, and particularly in the stewardship of America’s lands, waters, wildlife, and history,” Wyden said on the day of the confirmation. “And the Congress and the parkgoers are going to rely on him in the months and years ahead because we all know the Park Service faces big challenges.”

The last Senate confirmed director of the NPS served during the administration of Democratic former president Barack Obama. Republican former president Donald Trump failed to nominate someone to run the agency, which saw three “acting” leaders during his one term in office.

During his first year, Trump famously downsized the Bears Ears National Monument over the objections of tribes with cultural, ancestral and historic ties to the land, which contains burial sites and sacred places that continue to be used today by Indian nations in the southwest. He acted on the recommendations of non-Indian politicians in Utah, a number of whom have been openly hostile to the sensitive sites in the region.

On October 8, President Biden restored the original boundaries of the monument during a ceremony at the White House. Leaders from five tribes that will help guide management decisions at Bears Ears were present.

“This historic signing of the proclamation and restoration of the Bears Ears National Monument is a victory for our people, our ancestors, and future generations,” President Jonathan Nez of the Navajo Nation said after attending the ceremony. “Bears Ears is home to many of our historical and cultural sites, plants, water, traditional medicines, and teachings for our people.”

Joe Biden and Jonathan Nez
President Joe Biden, left, poses with a turquoise necklace presented to him by President Jonathan Nez of the Navajo Nation following a ceremony at the White House on October 8, 2021. Photo: Navajo Nation Office of President and Vice President

In addition to national parks and monuments, Sams inherits the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act program at NPS. The federal law, enacted in 1990, requires the return of ancestors and artifacts to tribes and Native Hawaiians, a process that has often proven to be burdensome, lengthy and costly.

The Biden administration is currently considering changes to the NAGPRA regulations that were developed after prior consultations with Indian Country. A new round of discussions took place in August.

“Changes to NAGPRA regulations are long overdue,” Haaland said in announcing the consultations. “It is crucial that as we consider changes, we consult with tribes and Native Hawaiian communities at each step. I’m hopeful this process will eliminate unnecessary burdens to the repatriation process and allow Indigenous peoples greater access to their ancestors’ remains and sacred items.”

One of the changes under consideration affects the placement of the NAGPRA program within the Department of the Interior. Tribes and Native Hawaiians were asked whether the program might be moved elsewhere, possibly to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a proposal that has been embraced by some.

“No offense, but we belong with people,” Robin Danner of the Sovereign Council of Hawaiian Homestead Associations said during a consultation on August 17. “We belong with the decades of incredible experience that Indian Country and other Native peoples have imparted to our federal government from the eras of termination, the eras of assimilation, to now self-determination.”

Tribal advocates were initially expecting the release of proposed NAGPRA regulations sometime in October. But the deadline for comments was extended to September 30, prolonging the process for now.

Tribal Historic Preservation Officers
Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Staff of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, from left: Xavier Watts, NAGPRA Technician; Cassandra Atencio, Deputy THPO; Garrett W. Briggs, THPO. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Box, Tribal Council Communications Specialist, Southern Ute Indian Tribe

Another area within NPS is the Tribal Historic Preservation Program, which helps tribes strengthen their historic preservation offices, commonly known as THPOs. Seven tribal nations recently signed historic preservation agreements with the agency.

“The National Park Service takes our responsibilities to tribes seriously,” NPS Deputy Director Shawn Benge said last month.

According to the NPS, 207 tribes have signed THPO agreements with the agency.

Related Stories
Charles “Chuck” F. Sams III Opening Statement – Nominee, National Park Service (October 20, 2021)
Cronkite News: Tribes welcome restoration of Bears Ears National Monument (October 19, 2021)
President Biden issues proclamation restoring boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument (October 8, 2021)
President Biden delivers remarks on national monuments (October 8, 2021)
Fact Sheet: President Biden Restores Protections for Three National Monuments and Renews American Leadership to Steward Lands, Waters, and Cultural Resources (October 7, 2021)
Tribal citizen nominated to lead National Park Service for first time in history (August 18, 2021)