Senate Unanimously Confirms First Native American Leader of National Park Service

Charles Sams III was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate Thursday night, making him the first Native American to become the director of the National Park Service, according to The Associated Press.

"I am deeply honored," Sams told the Confederated Umatilla Journal Friday. "I am also very deeply appreciative of the support, guidance and counsel of my tribal elders and friends throughout my professional career."

The National Park Service oversees more than 131,000 square miles of parks, monuments, battlefields and other landmarks, and employs 20,000 people in permanent and temporary jobs.

It has been led by acting directors since January 2017, when Jonathan Jarvis left the position he held since being confirmed in 2009.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary, praised the nomination when Sams was first tabbed by President Joe Biden in August, saying Sams would bring diverse experience the Park Service can use.

Sams said during his confirmation hearings he would work to make sure Native American history is included and reflected on National Park lands. He also said his past positions within the Indigenous community would provide valuable views and knowledge within the National Park Service.

Sam is Cayuse and Walla Walla and has lived on the Confederated tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon. He has worked in state and tribal governments, along with positions in the nonprofit fields of natural resource and conservation management for the past 25 years.

He is a U.S. Navy veteran, with a Bachelor's degree in business administration from Concordia University-Portland and a master of legal studies in Indigenous Peoples Law from the University of Oklahoma.

For more reporting from The Associated Press, see below.

National Parks Service, Charles Sams III
The Grand Canyon National Park is covered in the morning sunlight as seen from a helicopter near Tusayan, Ariz., on Oct. 5, 2013. The U.S. Senate has unanimously approved the nomination of Charles "Chuck" Sams III as National Park Service director, which will make him the first Native American to lead the agency that oversees more than 131,000 square miles of parks and other landmarks. Julie Jacobson/Associated Press File

Some conservationists hailed Sams' confirmation Thursday night as a commitment to equitable partnership with tribes, the original stewards of the land.

During confirmation hearings, Sam noted his experience with nonprofit work that included facilitating land transfers and working with volunteers on conservation and invasive species management, according to Indian Country Today.

He said it is important to work with Native Americans on traditional ecological knowledge "based on 10,000-plus years of management of those spaces to ensure that they'll be here for future generations to enjoy."

"He is known for being steady at the helm and taking challenges in stride," said Bobbie Conner, director of the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute on the 270-square-mile (700-square-kilometer) reservation.

Kat Brigham, chair of the board of trustees of the Confederated Tribes, recalled Sams fishing for salmon in the Columbia River as a young man, standing on a scaffold and using a net, according to tradition.

"I'm very proud, and I think it's very exciting that we have a tribal member who's first in history to be in charge of our National Park Service," Brigham said. "He knows how important our land is. He knows that we need to protect our land, not only for today, but for our children's children."

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, who had asked the Senate to pass the nomination by unanimous consent, described Sams as a "role model in the stewardship of American land and waters, wildlife and history."

Sams' confirmation means Congress and parkgoers will have a steady, experienced leader to rely on in the years ahead, the Democrat said.

Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Maryland-based Chesapeake Conservancy, celebrated the news. His organization works to conserve natural and cultural resources at North America's largest estuary, Chesapeake Bay, where the National Park Service manages some sites.

"This has been a historic year for the U.S. Department of the Interior, with the confirmation of Secretary Deb Haaland as the first Native American Cabinet secretary of the United States, and now the confirmation of Chuck Sams as the first Native American to serve as director of the National Park Service," Dunn said. Haaland on Friday formally declared "squaw" a derogatory term and said she is taking steps to remove it from federal government use and to replace other derogatory place names.

Dunn pointed to the forced migration of Indigenous peoples that led to the creation of America's public lands, including national parks.

"As our country works to address those past tragedies, it is appropriate that the leadership of the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior reflect a new direction and a commitment to equitable partnership with the Indigenous peoples of the United States," Dunn said.

Sams is a member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, appointed by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. Previously, he held several positions with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, including executive and deputy executive director. He has also led the Indian Country Conservancy, among other organizations.

He has also been an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Whitman College.

National Parks Service, Charles Sams III
Close-up of carved seal of the US National Park Service mounted on a wall at Fort Baker in Sausalito, California, May 10, 2019. The National Park Service had its first Native American director confirmed Thursday, Charles Sams III, who was confirmed unanimously by the Senate. Smith Collection/Gado via Getty Images