Background image of Blanketed in a Pendleton blanket, indigenous leader Roy Sampsel is honored at the ILA ceremony


Remembering Roy Sampsel

A champion of collaboration, Roy Sampsel will be remembered as a mentor to many.

On November 13, 2017, the Northwest lost a committed champion of collaboration and community building. For decades, Roy H. Sampsel (Choctaw-Wyandotte) played numerous critical roles in re-establishing tribal people to their rightful place at the table concerning salmon restoration, tribal sovereignty, community and economic development, and indigenous thought leadership.

While his career took him to the highest levels of government, Roy’s friends and colleagues remember him most for his commitment to the success of both the cause and community, going above and beyond to ensure that both continued moving forward.

“In the decades of Roy’s work, he rarely stopped to look back at the wake of his endeavors; he was, perhaps more than anything else, a forward-looking man,” writes Direlle Calica, Director of the Institute for Tribal Government at Portland State University. “Roy busied himself daily with keeping people connected, ideas flowing, keeping tasks on track, and projects moving toward completion.”

Over the course of his decades-long career, Roy held a variety of leadership roles including being the first executive director of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, where he led the way in establishing tribal fishing rights and winning greater protection for the Columbia River watershed. From 1981 to 1983, in the Department of the Interior, Roy served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Indigenous Affairs. In 2014, Sampsel was recognized as an Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award honoree.

But amid his various positions and recognitions, Roy identified most strongly as a mentor.

“The ability to share knowledge and power lets leadership grow,” he said. “Leadership is not necessarily individually achieved. I share whatever recognition I am given with others who were willing to share with me, and those who were able to inspire that ability to pursue change. It’s my continuing responsibility to share what I can with those that I can. I hope that what I’ve been able to share has had a lasting benefit.”

His commitment to mentorship was perhaps only rivaled by his commitment to collaboration.

When Roy Sampsel arrived in Oregon in 1954, the Dalles Dam was under construction, behind which Celilo Falls — one of the most culturally significant landmarks of tribal people across the Northwest — lies submerged today. At an event celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Bonneville Project Act, Sampsel spoke to the crowd about collaboration and restoration saying, “Without collaboration we could not succeed for the next 75 years. And we must. That’s the future that we promised our children, be they Indian children or non-Indian children, that’s what we have said that we will do and continue to do because we believe there is no challenge that working together we cannot collaboratively address and solve. I believe that from the bottom of my heart.”

Like many tribal leaders, Roy believed that the work of restoring the connections between people and place, especially tribal people and their place as natural resource stewards, could only be accomplished by committing to it for a lifetime.

“I have been dealing with issues of natural resource protection all of my adult life,” he said. “If you’re going to work with environmental restoration, you’re making the commitment for a lifetime, a commitment to change, and a commitment to taking specific action. You can have individual success, but your real success won’t be truly appreciated for a long time.”

Please join us in honoring Roy and the incredible gifts he shared throughout his lifetime. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the PSU Foundation.