By Cary Rosenbaum of the CUJ
One December day Chuck Sams was in a suit and tie in front of the Lincoln Memorial, shaking hands with Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland after being sworn in as National Park Service Director.
Days later, he’s in a NPS Ranger uniform being celebrated by his Tribal nation with an honor song.
The CTUIR member, who became the first-ever American Indian to serve as National Park Service Director, is off and running in his new role.
“We’ve been working very hard and the staff there are magnificent,” he said. “National Park Service, I think, is truly blessed to have some of the most dedicated employees in service to the United States. They’ve been very welcoming in having me join them. They have provided a number of briefings and understandings of how the National Park Service works, internally.”
“They’re also open to new changes and new direction and new strategy,” Sams added. “Unfortunately, they’ve been without a director for five years. And I think there have been a number of issues around that. You really do need somebody who is presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed to be ultimately their advocate on the votes within the Administration. But more importantly, I think, also with Congress to ensure that the resources are there and the budgets are met so they can do the important work they do for the American people.”
On Dec. 16, Sams stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial, having selected the location after accepting a suggestion from Haaland to perform the swearing in at the National Mall.
In a powerful moment, Haaland told Sams to look down. He was standing on a location inscribed as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “I have a dream” speech location.
“We took a moment to reflect and look out on the National Mall, and (Haaland) said, ‘You’re being entrusted with these monuments, memorials, parks on behalf of the American people.’ But I want you to look at your feet. I was standing on (Dr. King’s mark),” Sams recalled. “And (Haaland) said that we are now the embodiment of Dr. King’s dream. I looked and I want my people to know that we are in good hands with the Biden-Harris Administration, who respects the diversity that we are as Americans and wants to bring our voices to the table. And I look forward to ensuring strong consultation happens not only with my Tribe, but with all the Tribes of the United States.”
Sams also wanted it at the Lincoln Memorial due to the former President’s second inaugural speech inscribed on the wall. “It really talks about the importance that the union will only last as long as we want it to as Americans,” he said. “It was pointing at that everyone was at fault for the Civil War, and we will only be at fault with each other if we don’t figure out how to build a stronger union. I’m greatly appreciative of the President and his appointment to become the 19th National Parks Service Director and really believe in the Biden-Harris Administration’s push to form that more perfect union. I think that being part of the National Park Service where we hold those common grounds are key to continuing on to tell our stories as Americans and continue building a more perfect union.”
Before he left, the CTUIR celebrated him at the Tribal Longhouse, where drums, singing and dancing culminated with the presentation of a Pendleton blanket to Sams, who gave a brief farewell speech.
“I’m very pleased and honored and humbled by the Tribe wanting to do a recognition before we leave our homelands once again to venture east,” he said. “But I’m also comforted by the Biden-Harris administration and the number of Natives that are in the current administration, including (Secretary) Haaland, Pueblo of Laguna; Robert Anderson, Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, Solicitor at the Department of Interior; Jamie Pinkham, Nez Perce Tribe, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works; Janie Simms Hipp, Chickasaw Nation, General Counsel of the United States Department of Agriculture).”
“It’s comforting to know that as we head to Washington there are a number of American Indians in this Administration, many of whom I have the pleasure of knowing and calling my friend.”
Sams said he already has familiarity with more than 125 National parks and monuments, but will likely gear up for an aggressive touring schedule which includes some of the most and least well-known in the nation.
“The staff and I are working on a very aggressive schedule,” he said. “I think that if you look, the Secretary of the Interior has gone out and made sure to get out in the field to see everything that she is responsible for. She’s very encouraging for her bureau heads to do the same thing: to really get a feel of what’s going on out there.
“So I look forward to seeing a number of, not just the national parks, but the national monuments and memorials and some of the lesser known parks to go out and see, and talk with the staff there. I think it’s important that their voices are being heard and understood to see how we can help improve their work culture, their work environment and make sure they have those resources to deal with the influx of Americans who are coming and now rediscovering many of these smaller hidden gems in America.”
Paying homage to his mentors, Sams wanted CTUIR members to understand he knows he didn’t make it this far on his own.
“I fully know I didn’t get here by myself,” he said. “There are many mentors: Antone Minthorn, Les Minthorn, the late Jay Minthorn, the late Frenchy Halfmoon, the late Rosemary Narcisse.
These Tribal elders, these Tribal leaders really did pave the path forward and help me understand this road that I’m on and made sure that I knew where my own history lied and where I need to go to not just help my own people but to be of service to my own Tribal nation and the United States.”