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Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today

The expected appointment of Jaime Pinkham to a position overseeing the policies and performance of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works program is drawing praise from tribal leaders working to stave off the effects of climate change.

Pinkham, Nez Perce, would bring Indigenous knowledge and perspective to the management of America’s coasts, floodplains, rivers and wetlands as principal deputy assistant Secretary of the Army, though his appointment has not yet been formalized.

“He understands the needs of Indian Country and the climate change impacts we’re dealing with,” said Mike Williams, Yup’ik, chief of the Akiak Native Community in Alaska. “We need a strong Indigenous voice with the Army Corps of Engineers and with other agencies. That will make a huge difference.”

As principal deputy assistant secretary, Pinkham would help guide the civil works program, which, according to the government website, provides water resource development such as “navigation, flood control, hydroelectric power generation, municipal and industrial water supply, outdoor recreation activities, fish and wildlife habitat restoration, and ecosystems management.”

Pinkham’s impending appointment was made public in late February during the National Congress of American Indians’ 2021 Executive Council Winter Session. The appointment does not require congressional approval. Pinkham would succeed Ryan A. Fisher, who served during the Trump administration.

Pinkham said he couldn’t speak about the appointment until it’s announced by the White House.

“It’s still going through the process,” he said, adding, “I would be honored to join the administration and hope to be able to provide more information when it’s official.”

Pinkham is now serving as executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which assists the Nez Perce Tribe, Umatilla Tribes, Warm Springs Tribes and Yakama Nation in managing the Columbia River Basin’s salmon, lamprey and sturgeon populations, and in restoring and protecting habitat.

Diverse Cabinet for a diverse America

Pinkham joins a growing list of Indigenous appointees and nominees, underscoring Biden’s commitment to build an administration that reflects the diverse America it serves.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that there are about 6.3 million Native Americans, Alaska Native and Native Pacific Islanders in the United States. There are 574 federally recognized Tribal Nations, all of which have a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. and half of which are associated with reservations. Many treaty tribes have cultural and resource rights within their historical territories that are vaster than their reserved lands, and are often negatively affected by land-use decisions made by federal and state authorities.

The full Senate is scheduled to vote soon on President Joe Biden’s nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, as Secretary of the Interior. Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, would be the first Native American to serve in a Cabinet if confirmed.

Among Biden’s other Indigenous appointees:

  • Libby Washburn, Chickasaw, special assistant to the president for Native American affairs, White House Domestic Policy Council
  • Bryan Newland, Bay Mills Indian Community, principal deputy assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior
  • Paawee Rivera, Pojoaque Pueblo, senior adviser for intergovernmental affairs and White House Director of Tribal Affairs
  • Wahleah Johns, Diné, director of the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, Department of Energy
  • Heather Dawn Thompson, Cheyenne River Sioux, director of the Office of Tribal Relations, U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • Zach Ducheneaux, Cheyenne River Sioux, the first Indigenous person to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency

Biden has also appointed more women and more Hispanics than his six immediate predecessors, according to a comparison by the Brookings Institution.

Of 24 Cabinet and Cabinet-rank positions, 11 appointees are women, five are African American, five are Hispanic or Latino, two are Asian American, and one – Haaland – is Native American. In addition, Biden appointed Dr. Rachel Levine to serve as assistant Secretary of Health; if confirmed by the Senate, she would be among the highest-ranking openly transgender officials in the country.

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‘An important new chapter’

Pinkham brings strong credentials to the position.

He earned degrees in forestry from Peninsula College and Oregon State University, and before serving with the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission he worked as the Nez Perce Tribe’s natural resources director, working for restoration of salmon habitat and wolf populations, and negotiating land acquisition and water rights. He was elected twice to the Nez Perce Tribe’s governing body and served as treasurer.

Pinkham served as vice president of the Bush Foundation, where he led the foundation’s Native Nations Program, and he served on the boards of The Wilderness Society, American Rivers, and the Alaska Region Advisory Committee for the Yukon River Intertribal Watershed Council.

He serves on the board of trustees at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, is chairman emeritus for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and is past president of the Intertribal Timber Council.

Jessie Ritter, the National Wildlife Federation’s director of water resources and coastal policy, praised the choice.

“The Army Corps of Engineers has an essential role in managing America’s rivers, wetlands, floodplains and coasts to make communities and the nation’s wildlife more resilient to climate change,” Ritter said on the organization’s website. “Jaime Pinkham has the experience and perspective needed to guide the Army Corps of Engineers as it works to improve the health of the nation’s waters and invest in natural solutions to protect communities and wildlife alike. We look forward to working with him and the Biden Administration to achieve these critical goals.”

American Rivers President Tom Kiernan said on his conservation organization’s website that Pinkham’s experience with river management, treaties and fish and wildlife restoration would bring a fresh perspective to the agency.

“He is a strong leader and is committed to science-based, collaborative solutions that benefit communities and the environment,” he wrote. “As the first Native American in this position, he begins an important new chapter for the agency.”

Kiernan urged the Army Corps to address inequities in water resources and to use nature-based approaches to protect communities.

“Climate change is impacting communities across the country with bigger and more frequent floods and droughts,” he wrote. “The Army Corps has a critical role to play in strengthening communities in the face of these challenges. Protecting and restoring healthy, free-flowing rivers and investing in natural infrastructure must be the cornerstone of our strategy to build climate resilience because it has proven so effective.”

Micah McCarty, a former Makah Nation chairman who has long worked with organizations and Indigenous leaders on issues related to climate change and environmental protection, said Pinkham could help make the Army Corps more responsive to environmental issues affecting Indian Country.

“From my understanding, the Army Corps of Engineers has tended to be less accountable to its trust responsibility from an Indigenous perspective,” McCarty said. “For a lot of tribal governments, a lot of tribal leaders and environmental activists, the Army Corps has a reputation of being paternalistic toward tribes.”

Pinkham’s appointment is important to non-Natives as well, McCarty said, since the Army Corps of Engineers makes decisions that can have adverse environmental impacts.

Shoreline armoring to accommodate waterfront development, for example, alters wave action. The result is increased scouring of beach sediments, seagrass and organic debris -- and the loss of habitat for marine invertebrates, spawning fish and juvenile salmon.

“In general terms, the Army Corps tries to do a good job and, in general, they have a mandate. But the Army Corps is not always the best friend on tribal environmental issues,” McCarty said. “I think they have a different focus, and their mission is not in alignment with tribal priorities or community-based priorities.”

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