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Sampson Resigns CRITFC; Takes Post with Umatilla Tribes

by Wil Phinney
Columbia Basin Bulletin - March 14, 2003

Donald Sampson is leaving his position as executive director for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission for a similar position on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Eastern Oregon.

Sampson will assume the duties of executive director for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in June, after his four children finish the school year in Lake Oswego. In the interim, he intends to recruit and hire his successor for CRITFC, the 25-year-old, Portland-based organization that represents the fishery policies and objectives of the Umatilla, Nez Perce, Yakama and Warm Springs tribes, which have fishing rights guaranteed by treaties with the U.S. government.

Sampson, 42, has served as CRITFC's executive director since 1999, and has been involved in fisheries management for more than 20 years, including three years as fisheries Coordinator with the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority.

He also has been involved in tribal politics, serving as the elected chair of the Umatilla's Board of Trustees from 1993 to1997. In his new job, Sampson is the highest ranking employee, answering to the Umatilla's nine-person governing body.

As CRITFC's director, Sampson has been an outspoken advocate for treaty rights and has challenged the federal government to live up to its trust responsibility to protect natural resources. He has promoted hatchery supplementation and has led civil disobedience to stop the clubbing of excess adult salmon returning to Northwest streams. Further, Sampson has pushed all the way to Washington, D.C., for more accountability from the Bonneville Power Administration and has outlined a new vision for Northwest energy.

More than anything else, though, Sampson said he is perhaps most proud of people working at tribal programs and CRITFC on salmon restoration, and the alliances developed between Indians and other diverse interests to promote recovery of the Northwest's salmon populations.

"Our big challenge has been dealing with Endangered Species Act while meeting treaty obligations and restoring fisheries," said Sampson. "Our tribal fisheries programs on reservations have probably progressed the most. We've gone from a handful of biologists to as many as 600 people working on salmon restoration."

CRITFC's direction and staff, Sampson said, is driven by the four tribes, not individuals.

"I attribute all the success to commissioners and staff who have given me the guidance to go forward with the staff, which includes dedicated Indians and non-Indians who work here. It is their loyalty that drives our success."

Sampson said CRITFC is unlike any other organization he's been involved with.

"It's not only political, legal and a scientific institution of expertise, but staff also brings a strong spiritual connection to work. Staff sees the perspective of the tribes as being critical to the overall success of salmon restoration and environmental protection in the region and nation."

Sampson said, too, that he's proud of the coalitions formed between tribes and the environmental and conservation organizations, as well as commercial and sport fishing communities.

"We've found alliances with diverse groups, including industry, irrigation, farming and ranching communities that in the past had been opposed to our ideas," Sampson said, pointing to the Citizens Forum that grew out of talks between the Umatillas and the Oregon Wheat Growers League, and the assortment of players -- from electricity co-ops to Colville Indians -- who joined at the Methow River to keep fish from being clubbed. "Will Stelle, who was director of the National Marine Fisheries Service at the time, called us the strange bedfellows."

Key issues haven't changed over the last several years. They still include mainstem hydroelectric dams, Snake River dam breaching, improving passage for juvenile and adult salmon and using hatcheries as a tool to rebuild natural spawning.

Along the way, Sampson said, CRITFC tribes have "fought and will continue to fight the hatchery clubbing issue, the genetic mismanagement by state and federal agencies." Additionally, CRITFC will continued to address harvest, Sampson said, noting that last year was the first time in 40 years that tribes had four commercial fisheries in Zone 6 on the Columbia River.

Further, CRITFC continues to press for habitat protection and restoration in a variety of forums, including the Pacific Salmon Treaty, as well as with federal and state agencies to protect in-stream water uses and critical habitats.

Funding for projects will always be an issue, Sampson said.

"We've seen increases in funding from some federal agencies, but now we're dealing with BPA's financial mismanagement and lack of commitment to continuing their mitigation responsibility. Now we're working with Congress, specifically the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, on oversight hearings for BPA."

A new energy plan for the Northwest also is a key issue for CRITFC.

"We've described a new plan for the future that takes our reliance off the backs of the river and salmon," Sampson said. "We want to develop a diversified energy portfolio that is cost effective and avoids putting all our eggs in one basket, like we saw during the drought of 2001. And we have to continue to educate the region and the nation about our energy vision."

Within CRITFC itself, Sampson had led efforts to stabilize funding, implementing a salary schedule with revised personnel policies and several new initiatives that link the Commission with Northwest universities. The work has been rewarded with a number of accolades for CRITFC, including the 2001 President's Conservation award from the American Fisheries Society and a 2002 Honoring Nations Award from Harvard University. Sampson himself was one of the Ford Foundation's winners of the Leadership for a Changing World award.

Sampson decided to return to the Umatilla Indian Reservation, where he was born, after spending the last five years in Portland. He will be accompanied by his wife, Ellie, and their children -- Ashley 16, Johnny 14, Curtis 8 and Clara 6.

"I miss home, I miss my people, I miss the cultural and ceremonial activities, as does my family," said Sampson, whose father, Carl, is ceremonial chief of the Walla Walla Tribe. "I see the opportunity to work with the tribal government, which is one of the most stable governments in the Pacific Northwest. I see a lot of work to be done there and I think I can help. I think I can contribute to the next level of our tribal development."

Sampson said he's eager to have his family involved again in tribal traditions.

"I want my kids to be able to know their family and relatives, and be able to practice the social ways," he said. "It's hard to do that in the city. There are a lot of things to do here, a lot of excitement, but my children are growing up fast. I want to make sure their roots are dug deep into the homeland before they go off."

Sampson's childhood included years in Pendleton, Chicago, Portland and Echo before he returned to Pendleton, where he attended junior high and graduated from high school in 1979. He attended the Institute of Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., studied fisheries at Humboldt State in Northern California and Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton before earning his bachelor of science degree in fisheries management with a minor in Native American studies at the University of Idaho.

Sampson worked as an intern for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in 1981, then returned to the Umatilla Indian Reservation as a fisheries technician from 1982-1985. He went to work full time for the CTUIR Fisheries Program -- one of two people on staff -- in 1985.

In 1990, Sampson was hired by Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority, where he was fisheries resource coordinator for 13 tribes, four states and two federal agencies. He returned to the Umatilla Indian Reservation in 1993 and was elected chairman of the Board of Trustees, the highest elected position on the CTUIR's governing body. After four years, he decided not to seek re-election and was hired as watershed manager for CRITFC. Two years later he was named executive director for CRITFC.

Wil Phinney
Sampson Resigns CRITFC; Takes Post with Umatilla Tribes
Columbia Basin Bulletin, March 14, 2003

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