Native Americans protect heritage, connect visitors to nature at U.S. parks

Native American sitting on rim of canyon playing flute (NPS History Collection/Thomas C. Gray)
(NPS History Collection/Thomas C. Gray)

Even as a recently proclaimed national monument spans thousands of hectares of sacred Native American heritage sites, tribal leaders are shaping the future of public lands and national parks across the United States.

Deb Haaland in rugged terrain wearing baseball cap and mask (© Rick Bowmer/AP Images)
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland at Bears Ears National Monument in 2021 (© Rick Bowmer/AP Images)

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, manages the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, among other bureaus, which protect America’s public lands and the infrastructure for parks and monuments.

In late 2021, Haaland swore in Charles “Chuck” Sams III, the first tribal citizen to lead the National Park Service.

Sams — who is Cayuse and Walla Walla and an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation — is an incredible asset, Haaland says, because he understands the importance of connecting people to nature and making parks more inclusive.

“I am honored to serve as director of the National Park Service and thank President Biden and Secretary Haaland for entrusting in me the care of one of America’s greatest gifts: our National Park System,” Sams said during his swearing-in ceremony. He plans climate resiliency initiatives and pollution cleanups for the parks, as well as upgrades to their service roads, bridges, trails and transit systems.

A U.S. Navy veteran, Sams has extensive experience working in state and tribal governments, as well as the nonprofit natural resource and management fields.

Betty Reid Soskin and Charles Sams posing for photo in park ranger uniforms (NPS/Luther Bailey)
National Park Service Director Charles Sams poses with the trailblazing African American Betty Reid Soskin in April. Soskin was retiring, at 100, as the oldest active park ranger. (NPS/Luther Bailey)

Protecting cultural landscapes

While Congress designates national parks, the president establishes national monuments by proclamation. National monuments are protected because they have important historical, cultural or scientific attributes.

Then-President Barack Obama, on December 28, 2016, proclaimed the more than 550,000 hectares of red rock canyons, juniper mesas and awe-inspiring buttes at the heart of Utah’s San Juan County as the Bears Ears National Monument. The area encompasses sacred ceremonial sites used by members of Native American tribes as well as recreational sites enjoyed by hikers, climbers and rafters.

The White House describes Bears Ears as “one of the most extraordinary cultural landscapes in the United States.” The site is graced by archaeologically significant ancient cliff dwellings, large villages and prehistoric steps cut into cliff faces; a prehistoric road system that connected the people of Bears Ears to each other and possibly to others beyond the area; and pictographs, rock art and rock writings.

Ruins of granaries built into bottom of huge sandstone rock with markings that resemble flames (© Rick Bowmer/AP Images)
The “House on Fire” ruins in Mule Canyon are part of Bears Ears National Monument. (© Rick Bowmer/AP Images)

This year, the Five Tribes of the Bears Ears Commission, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management formalized a partnership to manage Bears Ears. The agreement ensures that decisions will be guided by, and benefit from, expertise and historical knowledge of tribal nations of the area.

Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning sees collaborative management as an important step. “This type of true co-management will serve as a model for our work to honor the nation-to-nation relationship in the future,” she said.

Sams told reporters from Oregon Public Broadcasting that, for its part, the Park Service will continue to include Indigenous knowledge in management plans. And, he said, “we’re just very excited to be able to take the investments from the American people … so that we can ensure that parks are here for the next seven generations.”