Think Out Loud

What would tribal leaders want from the first Native American to lead the National Park Service?

By Julie Sabatier (OPB)
Oct. 19, 2021 11:04 p.m. Updated: Oct. 21, 2021 4:12 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Oct. 20

Charles "Chuck" F. Sams III is President Biden's pick to lead the National Park Service.

Charles "Chuck" F. Sams III is President Biden's pick to lead the National Park Service.

Oregon Governor's Office / Oregon Governor's Office


The National Park Service could be getting its first Native American director. Charles “Chuck” Sams III is an enrolled member of the Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes and the former director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. President Joe Biden nominated Sams to be director of the National Park Service in August and a Senate committee met Tuesday to consider his nomination. Journalist Brian Oaster asked three tribal leaders what they want to see from Sams if he’s confirmed. We hear from Oaster about their answers and about some of the harmful history the Park Service has with Native tribes.

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Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB. This is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Yesterday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee took up the nomination of [Charles] “Chuck” Sams. He was selected by President Biden to be the director of the National Park Service. If confirmed, Sams would oversee more than 400 national parks, monuments, memorials and recreation areas. He would also be the first Native American director in the Agency’s 105 year old history. Brian Oaster is a freelance journalist and editorial intern at the Indigenous Affairs Desk at High Country News. Oaster recently talked to three Indigenous leaders about what they would want to see if Sams is confirmed. Brian Oaster joins me now. Welcome back to Think Out Loud.

Brian Oaster: I am happy to be back.

Miller: Let’s start with the creation of some of these parks, going back many decades. In your article, you talked about two iconic parks, Yosemite and Yellowstone. They seem pretty emblematic of how the US government treated Indigenous peoples when it came to setting up the park system. Can you give us a sense for these histories?

Oaster: Sure. Yellowstone was the first national park, not just in America but in the world. It was created in 1872. In order to create it, President Grant (Ulysses S. Grant was President at the time) had to empty the Park first. So he drove out the Shoshone people and the residents of what we now know as Yellowstone. Of course, it was done through violence and coercion. So that was the beginning of the national park system, and it set the pattern, really. These spaces [as] we know them today, as you know, this kind of empty, pristine wilderness. But that’s artificial. They’ve been artificially emptied. They were not just originally home to Indigenous peoples, but they were actually sculpted and crafted by Indigenous peoples who participated in the landscape. Yellowstone is one example.

Yosemite, the other one that you mentioned, also has a really interesting history that’s often not told. When the Park Service came through, they were driving out the Me-Wuk people and the other Indigenous people that lived there. They gave them the option of staying. But they basically said if you stay, if you want to stay in your home in Yosemite Valley, you’ve got to be an employee of the Park Service. What that usually meant would be that they would have to dress up as plains Natives, meaning they would have to wear maybe a feathered war bonnet or fringe-tassel buckskin... basically like a Hollywood Indian, nothing that actually reflected their own culture or the Me-Wuk regalia. They would have to dress up like this and perform for tourists to draw crowds. If they did that, then they would be parks’ employees. Then they could stay in their village. The last Me-Wuk village was razed by the Park Service in the late 60s. I think it was 1969. So, this is a pretty recent history. This isn’t going back into the annals of American history. There are Me-Wuk people who remember this happening, who are alive today and who remember the Yosemite Valley as home.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for the language that was used to justify the forced removal of Indigenous peoples from these lands and the way in which this de-peopled land was talked about?

Oaster: Well, it kind of is based on this myth of the empty wilderness that comes from this John Muir kind of current of thinking. And it’s really, a lot of it’s based in his writing, but it somehow seeped into legislation. There were a couple of pieces of conservation legislation that were passed in 1916 and 1962 that codified this idea that the wilderness is supposed to be empty, and that’s a foundational tenet of Western conservation that is reflected in the National Park Service...

Miller: ...empty of human beings. You can have bison or trees or rivers or fish, but not the people who have been there for 10,000 years?

Oaster: Right. And not people generally at all, except for park rangers. It’s this idea that, first of all, land is capital and that people and landscapes are siloed into these different locations so that the people are supposed to be creating capital, being productive in their urban environments or in their agricultural environments, and then during the little two day weekends that they get or the two week vacations, then they go to their nature box where they have a nature experience. Then come back refreshed and ready to keep producing. It’s part of the capitalist infrastructure that treats land as a commodity. And it’s all done through separating people from the land.

So again, it’s artificial and it’s also intentional. It didn’t just happen this way. There was a time in history when the general public saw Indigenous people and the landscape as interconnected, which they were. And there was a shift in both public awareness about that and in legislation supporting that and that’s been studied in a paper, that was published by the University of Montana called Ethnic Cleansing and America’s National Parks. So again, this idea of empty wilderness that was sort of rooted in this John Muir fantasy was intentionally codified in American law and implemented to create the national park system.

Miller: How much does the Park Service currently acknowledge these parts of the parks’ births and histories within these famous parks, at Yosemite, at Yellowstone, and at any other place?


Oaster: I haven’t been to every national park, but I’ve never seen it acknowledged. Maybe that’s changing. Certainly it’s something that could change. That history could be acknowledged very easily through signage and updating visitor centers and whatnot. It probably differs from park ranger to park ranger of course, but on the whole I don’t think that it’s really acknowledged. I think it’s one of those things that most people either don’t want to acknowledge or simply just haven’t heard about. I didn’t learn about this growing up in the public school system and I don’t know a lot of people who did. So, I think in many ways what they call America’s best idea is really America’s best kept secret.

Miller: Mhm. I was struck by a page on the Park Service website where they explain the iconography of the agency’s logo, which is shaped like an arrowhead and then has trees, a mountain, sequoia, bison. They write this and they explain each piece of of the sign. They say this: ‘And last but not least, the arrowhead itself represents the culture and history that is protected in a national park.’ What do you make of that language?

Oaster: Well yeah, that’s interesting language, isn’t it? I mean, there’s a lot to unpack there. First of all, they’re claiming our cultures and suggesting that they’re protecting them, which they’re not, and they never have been. Indigenous people are protecting Indigenous cultures and they’re also…. They mentioned culture and they mentioned history, two things that, frankly the white people really love, and that’s where they want Indigenous people to be. That’s where the national parks system has tried to push Indigenous peoples - into a static past. They don’t mention Indigenous people today as dynamic, modern beings because imagine what they would say. What it would sound like if, in explaining the Indian arrowhead logo, if they said, ‘yeah, the people who are the rightful residents of these lands, they’re still here and they actually live nearby now and they’d like to come home.’

Miller: Well, this gets us to some of the conversations you had with three different tribal leaders from around the country. You wrote that John St. Clair, who is the Chairman of the Shoshone Business Council, said that he’d like Native tribes to have a way to display or explain their connections to their ancestral lands that have been subsumed by national parks. Can you give us a sense for what he has in mind?

Oaster: Mr. St. Claire was talking, really, about interactive media displays that would be pretty easily accomplishable at visitor centers. Just updating the signage and the historical plaques around these parks. It’s a very small ask, really, just to be included in the historical presentations.

Miller: Mhmm. There seems to be a bigger ask from Gwendena Lee - Gatewood, the White Mountain Apache Chairwoman who talked about the management of these parks and what she’d like to see in terms of consultation between the US government and other sovereign tribal governments. What’s her vision?

Oaster: Well, she was really getting to the idea of co-management and working together on any decisions that impact these lands, working as sovereign government to government relationships between the Tribes and the federal government. First of all, that starts with authentic consultation. One of the things that Chairwoman Lee - Gatewood would ask for is consultation. The consultation as it exists today is kind of a sham. The fact that Tribal leaders have to ask, still in 2021, for the United States to show up in good faith and conduct Tribal consultation in a way that’s actually meaningful and gives voice to to the Tribal Nations is, to me, it’s heartbreaking that that’s still something that we’re having to ask for.

But co-management could stand to do a lot of things. It could take a lot of the burden off of the United States to manage these lands. One of the things that Chairwoman Lee - Gatewood mentioned in her email to me was bringing back traditional methods of stewardship and actually Chuck Sams himself gave a brief mention to this in his in his Senate Committee Hearing yesterday about bringing back traditional ecological knowledge to some of these spaces. And that can be done collaboratively. That can be done as a joint effort between Tribal Nations and the United States. But there have to be government to government relationships and those relationships have to heal. There’s just been so much damage to those relationships that there needs to be progress there first. There needs to be progress and the consultation process first. And I think that Sams is really... who better to facilitate that, because that’s part of his background. His expertise really is in treaties and sovereign government to government relationships.

Miller: Is there a model for this kind of shared governance of a place like a national park somewhere else?

Oaster: Yeah, there definitely is. In Australia, which is another settler... excuse me, a colonial state on Indigenous land with British roots. The federal government of Australia has co-management agreements with Indigenous people for their national parks. So, if you go to visit Uluru, which used to be called Ayers Rock, then the visitor center and all the signage is presented from a cultural point of view and it’s designed by the Indigenous people of that land. So when you arrive as a tourist, you’re not getting the colonial story. You’re getting the Indigenous story. It seems to be working very well and I don’t see any reason that that kind of a joint management agreement couldn’t be implemented in the United States.

Miller: So, a joint management agreement is one thing, but increasingly I’ve seen calls for a more radical approach. I mean, the cover of The Atlantic a couple months ago said ‘Return the National Parks to the Tribes; The jewels of America’s landscape should belong to America’s original peoples.’ Did anyone you talk to say this is what we should do?

Oaster: No. As I said, the folks that I talked to were making very modest asks. Like I said, almost heartbreakingly modest, like how little they are asking for. I think part of that has to do with the position that they’re in as Tribal leaders. An Ojibwe journalist, like the one who wrote that Atlantic story, it is kind of in a better position to make this bold... to print this bold headline. I’m glad that that’s entering the mainstream conversation, on the one hand. But there are also small steps that need to be taken, just to move forward in the healing process between the governments, the Tribal governments and the United States. And of course, making a big radical ask like that would set off some alarms, probably, in Washington...

Miller: ...and may very well lead to a lack of a confirmation of a nominee. So let’s turn to a little bit to Chuck Sams and the hearing yesterday. From the coverage I saw, it didn’t seem like most of the issues you’re talking about here, even the modest ones as you’re describing them, it didn’t seem like they came up. I mean, Senators asked about staffing and funding and park infrastructure, hyper local questions like boating access on a particular lake in a national recreational area in one of the Senator’s states. Do you have a sense where questions of Tribal consultation or representation or governance, where they rank in terms of Chuck Sams’ own priorities?

Oaster: Well, I haven’t had a chance to speak with Mr. Sams himself yet. But I think just based on the fact that his background is partly in teaching treaties and sovereign governmental relationships as an adjunct professor at Whitman College and at Georgetown University, I think it’s safe to speculate that that probably ranks on his list of priorities. I think it was pretty funny watching the committee questioning because of what you said, because the questions that they asked really had nothing to do with relationship to the land, stewardship of the land, and things that Indigenous people consider very important. They were almost completely financial questions, budget questions. Many times, Senators referred to the billions of dollars that the parks generate annually. And it’s a really apt reminder that we think of the National Park Service as this sort of grandiose, pristine kind of thing because the landscapes are grandiose. But actually the National Park Service is a financial entity, first and foremost. It’s an economic entity. Like anything else American, its financial first. And you know, that’s where the Senators’ concern really seemed to be. They’re talking about how staffing is down 20% and Yellowstone is overcrowded. You know, there’s twice as many people in the past year because everybody wants to go out and because of the pandemic. Where are we going to get money to staff these places, and so on and so forth. And it’s revealing about how, from the American point of view, land, including the landscapes of the national parks are, at the end of the day, they’re capital.

Miller: Just briefly. How significant is it that if he were to be confirmed, Sams’ boss would be Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is herself Native.

Oaster: I think it’s super significant and very exciting. I mean, for hundreds of years of not being heard, just imagine that a Tribal leader that has not been able to participate in the decision making processes around their own home, now would have a chain of command that actually gives ear to not only their grievances, but their ideas, and it is sympathetic to some of their ideas like implementing traditional ecological knowledge. I mean that suddenly those Indigenous ideas about how to engage with the land and how to care for the land are no longer squashed down. They can reach all the way up to the cabinet level.

Miller: Brian Oaster, thanks for your time today. appreciate it.

Oaster: Thanks Dave.

Miller: Brian Oaster is a freelance journalist and an editorial intern at the Indigenous Affairs Desk at High Country News.