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10 Quick Questions for National Park Service Director Chuck Sams

NPS commemorates 107th anniversary on Aug. 25

spinner image chuck sams in national park service uniform holding hat against green and yellow ombre background
Photo Collage: MOA Staff; (Source: National Park Service)

The first tribal citizen to serve as director of the National Park Service (NPS), Chuck Sams, 52, is eager to ensure that future generations feel a strong connection to nature and history. As NPS prepares to commemorate the 107th anniversary of its founding on Aug. 25, Sams shares how the outdoors shaped his childhood, what he loves about his job and why he wants to hear your national park story.

Were you an outdoorsy kid?

Absolutely. I’m a Gen X-er 1970s kid whose parents ensured that you stayed outside until the sun went away. And then you got up early in the morning and got your chores done and went right back outside all day. I grew up on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in northeast Oregon [Sams is Cayuse and Walla Walla and is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in northeast Oregon; he also has blood ties to the Cocopah Tribe and Yankton Sioux of Fort Peck] and was very fortunate to have a strong upbringing and land ethic that told me that we were responsible for stewarding the flora and fauna. What better way to do that than being outside all the time, playing in the dirt, playing in the creeks and the rivers all times of the year.

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Did you have any idea that your love of the outdoors could be channeled into a career?

Absolutely not. I grew up originally in what they call “the projects” on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. I was very fortunate to have two parents who had finished their associate’s degrees in the 1960s. They were a rare commodity in themselves in that they were two Native Americans who actually had gone to college and finished two-year degrees. They had worked hard to figure out how to get us to a middle-class lifestyle. They wanted to be sure that we grew up on a reservation — which turned out to be my father’s reservation — so that we would grow up with traditional values that have been with us for thousands of years.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed as if people were rediscovering the outdoors.Absolutely, and during COVID, my own family [wife Lori Lynn and their four children, ages 23, 22, 19 and 10], we spent a lot of time out on the reservation on the Umatilla River, on the Columbia River, on the Walla Walla River — spending time out in nature. We also made travels over to Whitman Mission National Historic Site and down to John Day Fossil Beds in central Oregon, both run by the National Park Service, because we knew those sites were still open and you could get outside and get an education while being able to enjoy recreational opportunities.

The crowds at the national parks have not abated since then. What are some of your favorite lesser-known parks?

We are blessed with many across the United States, many of them that you can stop into and see. People don’t realize that if [for example] you are staying in and around the Dayton, Ohio, area, you can get [to] four to six national parks and national sites: the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers [National Monument] or the [Dayton] Aviation Heritage [National Historical] Park; the First Ladies [National Historic Site], which consists of actually two properties in Canton. You can go to the Hopewell Culture [National Historical Park] or James Garfield [National Historic Site]. There are a lot of smaller sites that you can get into regularly, and you can visit three to four sites in the scope of a long weekend. A lot of people don’t always realize that they can get to all those sites so quickly.

spinner image chuck sams in a national park service uniform posing for a photo with a man inside the visitor center
Sams, seen here with a Chinook Nation representative, is the first tribal citizen to serve as director of the National Park Service.
Courtesy: National Park Service

What’s the most fun thing about your job?

I love interacting with staff out in the field — talking with them about their own experience, how they got into the National Park Service, what are their aspirations and leadership ideals of what they want to do. And then talking with the veterans in the service who have seen the cultural change happen over the last decade as they see this new generation of stewards come in who are excited about really dedicating their lives to parks.

Have you had any frightening animal encounters at a park?

I grew up in the outdoors. I’m not too scared of animals. I’ve faced wolves. I’ve faced coyotes. I’ve been around cougars. At Yosemite [National Park in California] a couple of weeks ago, [Yosemite Superintendent Cicely Muldoon and I] were walking down a trail, and I … had her look up, and here comes a bear. It was probably maybe 50 feet away from us. We stopped, waved at it, just looked at it, and it turned and walked away. [The National Park Service requires that all visitors maintain a distance of at least 100 yards when viewing wildlife such as bears and wolves. Sams and Muldoon happened upon the bear on the trail and took appropriate action by not pursuing the bear and moving along out of its way.]

What might we be surprised to learn about you?

When [I’m asked to play] “two truths and a lie” … I’ll tell people I play a concert violin, I speak fluent Russian and I can write in Mandarin. The lie is that I can write in Mandarin. I can’t do that. But I do speak fluent Russian. I was in the Navy. I was an intelligence specialist trained as a Soviet analyst. And I am a classical violinist.

What is one of your goals as NPS director?

Secretary Haaland [Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland] — when I took on this position in December of 2021 — she told me to lean into the stories that have yet to be told and to be fierce about our storytelling. And so when I look across the landscape, we want to ensure that every American sees a reflection of themselves when they go into the park. I don’t care if you immigrated and became a naturalized citizen last year, or you came across on the Mayflower, or you’re a Native person who’s been here since time immemorial. There are so many stories that we should be telling in the parks, and we’re working toward that goal. Most recently, I was at Yosemite, where we were talking about the influence of Chinese Americans in that park, when they actually had a laundry system that supported all types of activities in the park and cooks that work in the park. Those stories have been buried for a long time and forgotten.

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Is that the motivation behind the new NPS “My Park Story” campaign?

I want to hear from staff, from visitors, to tell me about their own experiences in your park. It’s important that we hear that so that we can spread that message, because what makes this democratic experience and experiment possible is the diversity that we have in this country. We can only do that by telling the diversity story.

spinner image u s secretary of the interior deb haaland, director of the national park service chuck sams and staff at avi kwa ame national monument
Sams, along with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, was on hand to celebrate the recent designation of the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Nevada.
Courtesy: National Park Service

What’s your “My Park Story”?

My mother was from Arizona, Somerton. She’s Cocopah Indian. My father is Walla Walla Cayuse from Umatilla Indian Reservation, northeast Oregon. So we spent many a summer traveling from Oregon to Arizona to go visit family, and we would stop at parks along the way, including the John Day Fossil Beds and the Grand Canyon. I can remember from a young age being awed at the Grand Canyon and its expansiveness. Most recently, we declared Avi Kwa Ame [in Nevada] a new national monument. Avi Kwa Ame is called Spirit Mountain by my mother’s people, and it’s part of their creation story. I was proud to stand with the [interior] secretary at the mountain when we dedicated that and to realize that that trip that started from … about age 4 — traveling to Arizona through that territory — to today. And seeing my homeland being further protected as a national monument brings me great joy, great honor to be working for this administration.

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