With fires and covid raging, and the messy retreat in Afghanistan, it’s a murky time. So good news in the Department of the Interior is welcome!
Chuck Sams, enrolled on the Umatilla Reservation, where he has served in several tribal government positions and as a recent Governor Brown appointee to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, will, if confirmed, direct a National Park Service system made up of 423 national park sites throughout the United States. Among the national park sites are 63 national parks, 85 national monuments and other sites such as national battle sites and national shorelines.
Sams is the third major American Indian appointment by the Biden Administration in the Department of the Interior. The first was the secretary, Deb Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo. The second was Jaime Pinkham, “appointed to the position of Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works on April 19, 2021, and… also serving as the Acting Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works.” If I understand the jargon correctly, neither position requires Senate confirmation, but removing the “acting” will.
According to a US Army release, “As the Acting Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, he establishes policy direction and supervises the Department of the Army functions relating to all aspect of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Civil Works program.”
Pinkham, who is enrolled in the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho, has held many leadership positions in tribal government and the non-profit world, serving since 2017 as Executive Director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. He probably knows more about dams than most of his new engineer-employees.
Haaland has most recently said, to criticism of new history writing bringing old stories to light, that “I think what our country has taught us over the last year or so is that our [Indian] history is everyone’s history… History doesn’t change. However, we can choose not to learn about it.” More specifically, in the wake of boarding school abuse disclosures in Canada, Haaland has asked for research into Indian boarding school abuses on our side of the border. She didn’t miss a step in following on those Canadian disclosures, grabbing the moment when public sentiment is riding high on her side.
The Department of the Interior is not all about salmon, boarding schools, and other “Indian issues”; Haaland is on top of oil and gas policy, and the broad management of millions of acres of public land.
What a place for an American Indian leader! And Pinkham and Sams bring Native experience and voices to broad aspects of Natural Resource policy. The Corps of Engineers built and maintains the major dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers—including fish passage. Pinkham has years of general natural resource leadership at a tribal level, and has dealt specifically with NW rivers and fish as director to the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission for the past four years.
And Sams goes to National Parks, many of which are past homes to scores of American tribal cultures and economies. The concept of Indian management of the entire parks system, advocated recently by Ojibwe writer David Treuer in the Atlantic Monthly, might be impractical or still at a distance, but it is in the news, part of the conversation, and at the least requires new examinations of ancient allegiances and practices.
My mentor, Alvin Josephy, often said that Indians have things to teach us still, and intimated that the field of natural resources is an area to look at. If we listen closely to fire and fish talk today, we’ll hear Indian voices. Abundant fish mean healthy water; low and frequent burning means healthy forests, healthy land.
And amidst fire, smoke, and pandemic, who doesn’t want healthy water and healthy land. Add renewable and clean energy and there’s a natural resource trifecta.
Add to that a truer, broader history with warts and all, and one Native voice leading one major government agency at a cabinet level is very good news.
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