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Richard Arlin Walker
Special to ICT

President Joe Biden has nominated Chinook Indian Nation citizen Roger Nyhus to be ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean in a move that could make him the second Chinook and at least the third Indigenous person to serve as a U.S. ambassador.

Nyhus told ICT that he can’t talk about his possible new job until he’s confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as ambassador to Barbados, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Chinook Indian Nation citizen Roger Nyhus of Seattle was nominated in September 2022 by President Joe Biden to be ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean. If approved by the Senate, he would become the second Chinook and at least the third Indigenous person to serve as a U.S. ambassador. Chinook citizen J. Christopher Stevens served as ambassador to Libya and was killed in the attack in Benghazi in 2012. Keith Michael Harper, Cherokee Nation, served from 2014-2017 as ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. (Photo by John Lok, courtesy of Roger Nyhus)

But the potential challenges that would await him are clear.

Barbados ceased being a British realm in 2021 – though it remains a member of the British Commonwealth – and other Eastern Caribbean countries have indicated a desire to follow suit.

The island nations are grappling with rising sea levels and increasingly ferocious storm events because of climate change and are sure to deal with climate-related economic and environmental changes as well in coming years. The nations are also working to adequately address the generational trauma felt by Indigenous peoples and those whose African ancestors were brought there by force.

Those who know Nyhus say he is well-suited on many levels for the job. They talk about his ability to navigate complex issues and work with diverse groups – government, business and the public – to get stuff done.

“He’s very self-deprecating. He has no ego,” said Bob Ratliffe, a Seattle-based investment strategist.

Ratliffe worked with Nyhus to bring former South African President Nelson Mandela to Seattle and to return Keiko, a captive orca, to its native waters in Iceland.

“He’s a guy who says, ‘How do we get this done and who do I need to put in what position to help me?’ I think that’s his superpower - getting people to be supportive of something he’s working on, to understand the story and get others to buy in.”

Ratliffe added, “He is a guy who comes from a small town in Washington state, of Indigenous roots, a member of the gay community. He brings a whole bunch of different views of the world to what he’s doing. I think he will be a servant leader, a guy who says, ‘How can I do the best thing I can for the United States in this situation?’ It’s not about his ego.”

Nyhus was recommended for ambassadorial appointment by U.S. Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Washington, with whom Nyhus worked when she was CEO of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, and U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Washington, who represents Nyhus’ hometown of Westport.

Nyhus returned a phone call from ICT, but said, “Out of respect for the Senate confirmation process, I am unable to comment at this time.”

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Nyhus grew up in a fishing village on Washington’s Pacific Coast where, according to his biography, he ran the town’s summer fishing derby to help pay for college. His father was a commercial fisherman and his mother was a clerk in the municipal court.

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Nyhus earned a communications degree at Washington State University and then worked as a reporter for The Associated Press. Two years later he founded Nyhus Communications, a communications and advocacy firm that would eventually become one of the largest Native-owned companies in the state. It counted among its clients Alaska Airlines, American Express, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Russell Investments, Swedish Hospital, and PATH, a nonprofit organization that advances health equity for women and girls in Africa.

Nyhus served under contract as communications director for Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, and took a hiatus from his company to serve as communications director for Washington Gov. Gary Locke and, later, as senior advocacy officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Nyhus, who now lives in Seattle, sold his company to a partner firm in June.

Nyhus’ ambassadorship would be significant to Indian Country and, particularly, to the Chinook Nation. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, he would be the second Chinook Nation citizen to serve as a U.S. ambassador.

John Christopher Stevens, also Chinook, served as the U.S. ambassador to Libya and was killed in the attack in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012.

Keith Michael Harper, Cherokee Nation, served from 2014-2017 as ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Harper was believed to be the first Indigenous person to serve as an ambassador for the U.S.

Chinook Chairman Tony Johnson told ICT that Nyhus and Stevens both come from families of hereditary leaders, “and it makes perfect sense that they would fall into these important roles.”

Growing up on his ancestral homelands, Nyhus witnessed the Chinook Nation’s struggles for justice. His grand-uncle, Adolph Sund, was Chinook Nation chairman in the mid-20th century “and was involved in fighting the very same battle we’re still fighting today — for clarification of our status in our homelands, for acknowledgement of our community,” Johnson said.

Chinook ancestors signed the Treaty of Tansy Point in 1851, making land available to settlers, but resisted efforts by the U.S. to move off its ancestral lands to the Quinault reservation.

The U.S. terminated its relationship with the Chinook Nation and 108 other tribal nations beginning in 1953. The Bureau of Indian Affairs stopped providing services to so-called landless tribes, including the Chinook Nation, in 1967, and nine years later the Chinook Nation petitioned the U.S. to restore its government-to-government relationship.

The Chinook Nation was recognized in 2001 by the Clinton administration but that recognition was rescinded the following year by the George W. Bush administration – just days after Johnson’s father, who was chairman at the time, was invited by the administration to participate in a commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

“Roger was raised with his grandmother, Adolph’s sister, and that was part of his life,” Johnson said. “That history informed his experience and his childhood, and I know he’s a proud member of the community and proud of his relative’s work for the benefit of our folks here at the mouth of the Columbia River.

“Roger comes from a community and life experience that is very different than many folks who end up in the role of ambassador, who maybe had more resources or can’t say they came from a community that really struggled with poverty or historical trauma. Roger does have that in his background.”

Johnson added, “The other thing about the part of the world where he’s going is there is also a complex Indigenous history, and I want to think that Roger’s love for his community and ancestors, and his understanding or direct experience of a very complex relationship between the United States government and the Chinook Nation, will benefit his ability to navigate that and, I hope, see that Indigenous communities have the right to flourish and thrive in the Caribbean as well.”

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