Background image of Chairman Antone Minthorn, Prof. Mary Clare, and Roy Sampsel at ATNI office, sitting side by side at a table.

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Roy Sampsel, Indigenous Leadership Award honoree

A leader in the Pacific Northwest and the highest levels of the U.S. federal government, Roy Sampsel possesses an exceptional ability to make the most of the opportunities he finds and to help others do the same.

By Clara Sachsse

Roy Hunter Sampsel is honored for his work on indigenous governance and environmental stewardship in the Pacific Northwest and at the highest levels of the U.S. federal government. Today, Roy provides counsel to tribal governments and federal and state agencies in the development of fish and wildlife programs. In his long history of such service, he has become a highly respected and beloved mentor and leader to many. Roy describes himself as lucky to have been present and involved in some historic changes in indigenous governance and environmental stewardship.

“A big part of my story was just blind luck. I was fortunate enough to move out to the Northwest in the early 50s when there was a regional tribal marketplace along the entire Columbia River. This whole area was inundated by the construction of the Dalles Dam, prior to the tribes asserting the fishing rights and other rights to the river. I had the luck to be there as a young man and see it in person.

“For me, this experience was a grounding point; when I had discussions about tribal and governmental co-management, I had that foundational base about why it was important. The flooding was such a traumatic cultural and historic loss.”

The Columbia River watershed. Blue sky with clouds hugging the horizon. Glassy water.

Roy possesses an exceptional ability to make the most of the opportunities he finds and to help others do the same. Roy has been a trailblazer in advancing federally recognized tribal fishing rights. As Executive Director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Roy led the way in establishing tribal fishing rights and winning vastly greater protection for the Columbia River watershed.

From 1981 to 1983, in the Department of the Interior, Roy served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs. Roy recently stepped down as Director of the Institute for Tribal Government at Portland State University and today is the Executive Director of a natural resource management firm in Portland.

“The ability to share knowledge and power lets leadership grow. 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.”

Mentorship has been a strong force in Roy’s life. He credits Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton with giving him the opportunity to lend a hand in the formative days of federal environmental regulation.

Tribal leaders have offered great inspiration and support. Roy names Lucy Covington, a Colville woman and a famous adversary of the termination of indigenous rights, as one example of a mentor who was especially generous to him with her time and encouragement. She made the time to take him out for coffee, ask him direct questions about his work, and tell him that she thought he was turning into a fine young man and to keep working hard.

During his childhood in Oklahoma, Roy’s grandmother was a powerful influence. “She was a woman who shared that sense of history, and why it was important to be who you were. Those were lessons that I hope I’ve been able to live up to over the course of my life.”

Roy Sampsel shakes young graduate's hand

Colleagues, friends, and the many others Roy has mentored over the years agree that Roy lives up to his ideals of mentorship and leadership. He has helped many people with their missions of environmental stewardship and has inspired many more to become leaders in their own ways.

On mentorship, Roy says, “The ability to share knowledge and power lets leadership grow. 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.”

Roy’s work has had great benefits so far, and his impacts on the world and especially on those around him are sure to last for many years to come.

On November 14, 2014, Roy Sampsel and four others were honored at the 12th annual Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award in a private ceremony at the Portland Art Museum. Find out more about the award at ecotrust.org/ila.