Indian Country reacted positively to the Biden administration’s recent decision to appoint a member of the Pacific Northwest’s Nez Perce Tribe to a top position at the Army Corps of Engineers.
Jaime Pinkham would serve as principal deputy assistant secretary of the Corps for civil works, a post that doesn’t require Senate confirmation. Like President Biden’s nomination of Deb Haaland to lead the Department of Interior, choosing Pinkham is seen as another significant move to increase the presence of Native Americans in federal decision-making roles.
Pinkham’s position would represent the highest-positioned political appointee overseeing the Corps until Biden nominates an assistant secretary, which would require Senate confirmation.
Naming Pinkham is also important because the Corps, like the Interior, is involved in a number of projects that affect Native American communities, although priorities often differ.
In Florida, the Corps is the top federal agency responsible for Everglades restoration. It has worked on the multibillion-dollar Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) since 2000. The Seminole and Miccosukee tribes are two stakeholders as well.
Tribal leaders are concerned lately about a variety of water-related construction projects along Lake Okeechobee, including water storage near the Brighton Reservation.
Leaders believe the storage projects have the potential to cause life threatening flooding, property damage, negative environmental impacts to water supply and agriculture – and that it encroaches on tribal lands.
There’s hope that Pinkham’s presence will improve communication between the Corps and tribal communities and allow greater transparency in project development.
“I would say that the appointment of Mr. Pinkham represents an opportunity for the Seminole Tribe of Florida and other sovereign tribes to have an ally in Washington, D.C.,” Paul Backhouse, the senior director of the tribe’s Heritage and Environment Resources Office (HERO) said. “We hope he will be interested in coming to Florida to visit the projects associated with Everglades restoration.”
Pinkham has a diverse and extensive professional background.
He earned forestry degrees from Oregon State University and Peninsula College in Washington State. He was elected twice to the Nez Perce Tribe’s governing body, including as treasurer when the tribe took its first steps into gaming.
He led the tribe’s natural resource programs and was involved in salmon restoration, water rights negotiations, wolf recovery and land acquisition.
Pinkham previously served on the governing council of the Wilderness Society – a group that seeks to protect 109 million acres of wilderness in 44 states.
Water issues in the Pacific Northwest have been on Pinkham’s radar for many years.
As executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, he led efforts to restore the region’s salmon population and worked to protect tribal fishing rights.
Pinkham is connected to the long fight over four Corps dams on the Lower Snake River in eastern Washington which has caused a decline in the salmon runs that his tribe historically fished.
The Corps itself has previously invited Pinkham to train incoming district commanders on how to best work with tribal governments.
Pinkham supported President Obama’s halt of the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline – a 1,172-mile-long stretch from North Dakota to Illinois that the Corps is involved in.
“I do bring that unique perspective based on being a former member of tribal council, running natural resource programs for the tribes working on a lot of intergovernmental and collaborative relationships,” Pinkham said in a recent interview with the Seattle Times.
When asked when he would start his new position, Pinkham told the Seminole Tribune via email March 24 that he had not yet been briefed by the Biden administration on those details, and thus was “not in a position to make any official statements about priorities at this time.”
However, in a 2016 Chicago Tribune op-ed that he co-authored, Pinkham called on the federal government to uphold its tribal treaty obligations and share decision-making duties, writing that Native Americans are not “merely consultants,” but “legitimate, sovereign governments with capable natural resource managers.”
“The federal government strings together the words ‘government to government’ and ‘trust responsibility’ to describe its relations with Native American nations,” the authors wrote. “But it is action, not words, that matter. When tribes enter into treaties and agreements with the federal government, a sacred deal is made.”
Tribal leaders say Pinkham’s appointment provides a chance for institutional change at the Corps.
“Mr. Pinkham has grown up in the sacred place of the salmon,” Faith Spotted Eagle, an elder of the Yankton Sioux Nation and activist who fought the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, said in a recent interview with Environment & Energy News. “[He] excites us, gives us hope.”
Jamie Williams, the president of the Wilderness Society, was one of the co-authors of the op-ed with Pinkham. He issued a statement after Pinkham’s appointment.
“I can’t think of anyone more qualified to lead the Army Corps and begin to undo the Corps’ historic injustices at this key moment than Jaime Pinkham,” he said. “Jaime’s expertise on tribal sovereignty and passion for conservation will bring balance to decision-making at the Army Corps of Engineers.”