Two Teenage Navajo Native American Girls Looking over the Vast Desert in Northern Arizona Monument Valley Tribal Park Navajo Reservation
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First Native American Appointed to the National Park Board

Since the Board's beginning in 1935, there has never been a Tribal representative.

In the 88 years the National Park System Advisory Board has been around, none of the 15 members have ever represented the United States' original inhabitants who cared for and protected this land for centuries before a federal system was in place. Now, the board's newest appointee finally gives the Native American people a seat at the table.

Aja DeCoteau, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, was appointed at the end of May by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. According to a press release, DeCoteau will work with National Park Service Director Chuck Sams and Haaland on "matters relating to the Service's work." DeCoteau is one of 15 new members to the board, which had been inactive for the past two and a half years.

DeCoteau is a citizen of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and has lineage with the Cayuse, Nez Perce, and Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Moreover, she has worked on natural resource management and policy in the Columbia River Basin for over 20 years and holds a bachelor's degree in environmental studies from Dartmouth College and a master's degree in environmental management from Yale.

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"Growing up in Indian Country on the lands of the Yakama Nation, I have always held a deep appreciation and sense of stewardship for our sacred waters and lands that provide our people with our first foods," DeCoteau said in the press release. "I am honored to accept this appointment to help advise Secretary Haaland, Director Sams, and the National Park System as we work to continue to provide all visitors of current and future generations the opportunity to take in and enjoy the natural beauty and wildlife of this country."

The board is not only an advisory committee. It also plays a role in recommending National Natural Landmarks and National Historic Landmarks, including providing its thoughts on the significance of potential National Historic Trails.

"The challenges faced by the National Park Service reflect the challenges faced by our nation," Sams said in the release. "Whether it's an increasing demand for dwindling resources, the impacts of a changing climate, or the struggle to understand how our past influences today's injustices, recommendations developed by the National Park System Advisory Board will help us strengthen our connection to the land and to our history."

Haaland emphasized the importance of having a tribal perspective regarding public land and water matters. When it came time to choose a new board, she required at least one member to be from a federally recognized tribe. Members only serve on the board for four years.

"National parks are some of the most visible and important forums for visitors to explore the outdoors and learn the complicated yet vital story of America," Haaland said in the release. "These new National Park System Advisory Board members represent experienced practitioners in cultural and natural resources management, as well as experts in relevant academic fields, including environmental law, geography, and history. I look forward to their insights as we work to make our public lands accessible and inviting to all."

READ MORE: 2023 Marks the 40th Anniversary of the National Parks Nonprofit Trust