Charles Sams III becomes first Native American to head National Park Service in its 105-year history

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The U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed Charles “Chuck” Sams III as the next director of the National Park Service on Thursday. He will be the first Native American to lead the agency in its 105-year history.

Sams, who is Cayuse and Walla Walla, is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

The Oregon-based Confederated Tribes is comprised of individuals from the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes. Sams told the Confederated Tribes’ newspaper, the Confederated Umatilla Journal, on Friday that he’s “deeply honored” to serve as the 19th director of NPS. 

“I am also very deeply appreciative of the support, guidance and counsel of my Tribal elders and friends throughout my professional career,” Sams told the newspaper. “I look forward to carrying on the responsibility of being a good steward of our natural resources and in joining the dedicated and dynamic staff of the National Park Service.” 

Sams’ confirmation marks the first time in nearly five years that the department will have an official director. The position has been filled with various people serving as acting heads since January 2017, when Jonathan Jarvis, who was confirmed as the director in 2009, left his position, according to the Associated Press

Sams has worked in state and tribal governments, as well as in natural resource and conservation management, for more than 25 years, the Department of the Interior said. Sams, who is also a Navy veteran, has a bachelor’s degree in business administration, as well as a master of legal studies in Indigenous peoples law.

Charles Sams National Park Service
Charles F. Sams III, nominee to be Director of the National Park Service, poses for a photo before the start of his confirmation hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on October 19, 2021.

Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images


In a press release on Friday, tribal leaders commended the confirmation, with Confederated Tribes trustee member Kat Brigham saying that Sams “knows the outdoors.” 

“He understands the importance of helping families develop a relationship with the land,” Brigham said. 

Tribal elder Antone Minthorn said Sams “has dedicated his life to protecting and providing for the people.” 

“At his core, he is honorable, loyal and accountable,” Minthorn said. 

The White House announced Sams’ nomination in August, with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who was the first Native American ever to be confirmed as a Cabinet secretary, saying that he will be an “incredible asset” to the department. 

“The diverse experience that Chuck brings to the National Park Service will be an incredible asset as we work to conserve and protect our national parks to make them more accessible for everyone,” she said. “I look forward to working with him to welcome Americans from every corner of our country into our national park system. The outdoors are for everyone, and we have an obligation to protect them for generations to come.”

The National Park Service was officially created in 1916 to care for the nation’s 423 parks and more than 150 related areas. In his role as director, Sams will oversee the management of national programs, policy and budget. 

During his confirmation hearings, Sams said that Indigenous and tribal consultation will be a large focus for him in his role as director, Indian Country Today reported. 

“In Indian Country, we expect an open discussion of the federal government prior to making decisions, not after the fact,” he said in an opening statement. He later told Senator Mazie Hirono that he wants to ensure “Indigenous history of park service lands – which often were taken from tribal nations – is included, in addition to incorporating Indigenous views and knowledge in decision making.”

“I look forward to working with Native communities across the United States, whether that’s in your home state of Hawaii, or Alaska Natives and throughout the U.S. territories, to make sure that this story can be told as broadly as possible,” he said, according to Indian Country Today. “And I think it’s important to be able to work with Native folks on traditional ecological knowledge and helping manage those spaces so that we’re conserving them based on 10,000 plus years of management of those spaces to ensure that they’ll be here for future generations to enjoy.”

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