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Nancy Marie Spears
Gaylord News

Jaime Pinkham is accustomed to slow-moving change.

It has taken since the inception of the Army of the Civil Works, nearly 200 years, to employ a Native person; Pinkham, Nez Perce, is the first Indigenous person ever to head the Army Corps of Engineers.

But Pinkham is hopeful that his appointment as acting assistant secretary of the Army Corps of Civil Works, as well as several other Indigenous non-traditional appointments in Congress, will lead to an opportunity of creating change. He was appointed to the position April 19.

The Army of the Civil Works provides policy guidance and direction to the Army Corps of Engineers. These are the folks on the ground on the civilian side, in charge of delivering the Civil Works’ mission around navigation, risk and flood management, environmental restoration and emergency management. Essentially, it is the civilian oversight provided to the military.

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Pinkham said he’s committed to finding how better relations and rebuilt trust can be instilled not just in Indigenous communities, but other communities that find themselves socially, economically and culturally in “the same positions that tribes are that have been living in the shadows of society.”

He reflects on his Nez Perce identity, his work, and the relationships between the federal government and Indian Country at large to see where the Army Corps of Civil Works can go from here.

Nancy Marie Spears: Can you talk about how your Indigenous heritage has impacted your career path? And are you proud to be an Indigenous person in the federal government, what does that mean to you?

Jaime A. Pinkham: Well, I'm not afraid to say, I'm Nez Perce. I don't know if you know where Nez Perce is from the Pacific Northwest where the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington come together. I would say, not so much that impacted my career path in natural resources, but certainly it's impacted my service to Indian country, in the fact that you know, after college, I eventually made my way back to Nez Perce to work on the tribes natural resource program and from that I took the leap of faith into tribal politics and was elected with two terms and my career just kept expanding and growing from there. In terms of being an Indigenous person in the federal government. How could you not feel proud to work for an administration that really has laid out a pretty strong focus on Indian Country, climate change and environmental justice? So to join this administration, with the priorities that they're laying out, anybody would be proud to be a part of this administration, Native or not.

Q: I want to talk to you about your previous career path and your experience in natural resource conservation, preservation efforts, things like that. How is that work going to translate into what you're doing in your new position when it comes to addressing infrastructure in Indian Country?

A: If you look at my work in natural resources, the work to me that that translated into is really the efforts of self determination, and tribal governance. So the focus has really been around tribal governance, and one of the programs of government is natural resources. So, what I feel that I bring into this position is on-the-ground, firsthand experience in how tribes govern themselves and properly as political institutions, so how that translates into delivering the civil works programs to Indian country, I think is a unique perspective.

Q: What do you bring to the table to the position at the Corps’ Civil Works that a non-Indigenous appointment would not? And can you talk about whether traditional ecological knowledge from tribes plays into or intersects with your work at all?

A: Everybody who gets appointed to these positions, has their own unique history background and perspectives. And so when they come in, they're looking at it through their lens. And if somebody comes in from the agriculture community they bring that perspective to this job or they come in from perhaps a navigation and shipping community, they bring that lens. So everybody brings a very unique perspective. And the perspective that I feel I bring to this work is an understanding of tribal societies, understanding of tribal laws, understanding that tribes do have these ... governments to protect their own citizens, to organize your own systems of laws. I bring in a lens of having been embedded in Indian country for the past two and a half decades.

Q: What do you see the tribes asking to be brought to the table regarding your work in civil works?

A: How can we support tribes in, kind of what their priorities are, in terms of developing our work plans, whether there are specific needs in support that are required to Congress. I think the other thing that you're getting to is what are the expectations of Indian Country. When somebody like me, or, you know, Janie Hipp or Miss Haaland, Chuck Sams, when we get into these positions, what is Indian Country's expectations of us? In my experiences here Indian Country recognizes that … while I've walked into this position, and while I bring years of history that all tribal leaders carry on their shoulders whenever they walk into the room. When I took the oath of office, I also now have been here to recover history. Histories, not just of the current administration but administrations past. And I think my job is how do I grade this path and previous decisions, laws that have been created over many generations, how do I bring that to this current time, with tribes currently, and their vision going forward. And to me it's also how do we bridge the expectations of Indian country when an Indigenous person is put in a leadership position within the federal government.

Q: What are your top three priorities as the new acting assistant and why?

A: I'll tell you, the things that really inspired me about this administration, and their priorities that we're working on is, one is addressing climate change. Climate change is real, we need to bring the best science to it, we've got to figure out what the strategies are going forward, to adapt and to mitigate the challenges that climate change presents. So that's one. The other one is issues around environmental justice that many decisions have been made, where there’s certain segments of society have not been as strong as a participant in decision making, or influencing decisions that are being made. So the other one is around environmental justice. And I guess if there's a third area it is how do we strengthen relationships with tribes, going forward, recognize them as truly sovereign governments with rights of self rule, yet having this special relationship and trust relationship with the United States. So I would say it's those three things that have inspired me to join the administration.

Q: What kind of systemic changes do you think can be made when folks include Indigenous voices in the conversation and at the table?

A: When I joined the administration, I mean, the words of encouragement that I was getting was tremendous and let's be honest that the United States Army's history with Indian Country has not always been positive. And in my very first meeting with the Secretary of army … around the office were these symbols and pictures and artifacts that were representative of the Army's history. It made me think about, there was a time when people may have sat around the table and made decisions that affected the Nez Perce War in 1877. I thought about that moment. How does my two great grandfather's who fought in that war against the United States Army in 1877, how do you get from there to me now sitting around this table? I just thought about the shoulders that I carried me this way and my grandfather, who was in France in World War One serving in the United States Army. And it made me think about his oldest son, my uncle, who was in the Army in World War Two at Normandy and served in France and Germany. Thinking about this transition that we made through this long history of the federal government and its relationship with Indian people and how we really came to this distance where I felt welcome to sit around this table within the United States Army, being given a chance to make a difference. I felt a sense of pride in having ridden on my grandfather and my uncle's shoulders to get to where I am today. It took from 1877 to today to see that kind of change take place.

Nez Perce war banner with the eagle feathers. (Photo by Douglas A. Massie, Army Corps of Civil Works)

Pinkham concluded his interview with a story of healing:

“In my office there is a flag, and it's the US Army flag. Every morning I come in my office, I just walked right by and never noticed it. On the army flag are all these banners, these ribbons that represent all the conflicts the United States Army was engaged in. Including the Indian Wars.”

“And sure enough, I got up and I thumbed through it. And there's this red banner that says, ‘Nez Perces, 1877’ and it's hanging in here. So I approached Colonel Massey and I said, I'd like to hang an eagle feather off of that, just representing the history. And I got permission to hang, I've got three eagle feathers hanging off that Nez Perce War banner in my office.”

“When I was at Nez Perce we used to do these ceremonies around the Nez Perce War of 1877. Where the battles were in Idaho and Montana, and we always say ... we're not coming here asking for an apology. We're here to continue the healing. And so the ability to hang those eagle feathers up, it just shows that we are healing. Times have changed.”

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