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Mount Rushmore National Memorial Superintendent to Oversee Indian Relations For National Park Service

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Gerard Baker, superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial and a full-blood Mandan-Hidatsa Indian, has been appointed as the National Park Service's first assistant director for American Indian Relations. NPS photo.

Under Gerard Baker, the National Park Service hopes to make up for lost time, an awful lot of lost time. In less than two weeks Mr. Baker will become the agency's very first assistant director for American Indian Relations, and he sees a lot of opportunities to improve relations between Native Americans and the agency that, in many cases, took control of their homelands.

"I think that now we take the opportunity to start creating dialogs, we start taking the opportunity to really start coming together as a nation to heal in many ways. And I guess I’m very thankful for that opportunity to be involved in that," Mr. Baker said Monday evening from his office at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, where he's been the superintendent for the past six years. "I know there are a lot of things that we can do as a National Park Service under the direction of the director, and there’s a lot of things that we can do as American Indians. To come forth in education, to come forth in positions, to come forth in establishing once again that contact with the homeland that is now within Park Service boundaries in some cases.

“So there’s a lot of opportunity here to, again, I guess the best word that I could use is to start that healing process.”

The role, announced earlier Monday, seems a natural fit for the 56-year-old Mr. Baker, a full-blood Mandan-Hidatsa Indian from western North Dakota.

While Park Service Director Jon Jarvis publicly gave Mr. Baker only a general mission of improving Park Service-Native American relations when it comes to cultural and natural resource issues, it doesn't take long to drill down into a number of potentially incendiary issues -- collection of feathers from eagles for ceremonial use, religious observances on native lands now lying within a national park boundary, hunting of species that might be endangered. Mr. Baker also specifically mentioned the possibility of working with some tribes on the controversial issue of how to deal with Yellowstone National Park bison when they leave the park's boundaries.

"We need to start with looking at the law, start looking at what the law says we can and cannot do, and then from there we explore within the law what we can do that’s comfortable for the tribe and the parks," Mr. Baker said in terms of how he would approach such issues. "I think that’s how we take a look at that, but we always need to take a look at the law first.

"I think there are components to make both sides work, I really do.”

Mr. Baker has spent more than 33 years working for the federal government -- three years with the U.S. Forest Service, and 30 with the Park Service. He's held a high profile "in Indian Country for his work as a mediator and facilitator on issues that involve tribes and the National Park Service," the Park Service said in a release announcing his appointment. "He’s also a familiar face on American history television programs. Baker was a consultant to and an on-camera historian in the 1997 Ken Burns film Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery. He toured with Burns, writer Dayton Duncan and the late historian Stephen Ambrose to talk about Lewis and Clark and American Indian perspectives of the Expedition of the Corps of Discovery. He also appears in the recent production by Burns and Duncan, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea."

As the first superintendent of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail from August 2000 to June 2004, Baker led planning, development and initial operations of Corps of Discovery II: 200 Years to the Future. The mobile mini-national park traveled to 100 communities across the United States during the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. The exhibit’s Tent of Many Voices was an education and entertainment venue that Mr. Baker said became particularly important for American Indian voices on history and culture. More than a half a million people visited the exhibit during its tour.

Mr. Baker and other American Indian leaders successfully labeled the American Bicentennial a commemoration instead of a Bicentennial celebration. “That remains an important distinction,” he said. “The National Park Service recognized that Lewis and Clark coming to Indian Country was no celebration for us. They signaled the end of life as we had known it for eons.”

He wouldn't dwell on why it took the Park Service, which celebrates its centennial in 2016, so long to create such a position.

“I’m not blaming any of the past administrations, but I think every administration I’m hoping made it a little bit better," he said, noting progress made via the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Reparation Act. "I think as each administration came in, they put a little more on the table to that. This administration, with President Obama, with our current secretary, and obviously with the current director, they’ve opened that door for this, and it’s never too late. It should have happened yesterday, it should have happened 100 years ago, but it didn’t."

Mr. Baker said his new role is to continue the relationship building he did with tribes during the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial and in his time in South Dakota as he led staff to expand the story of Mount Rushmore to include wider perspectives of history and culture – of the entire Black Hills area that includes the iconic monument to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

"I've got 33 years of government service where almost on a part-time basis I’ve been this kind of work all my career," he said Monday. "Getting people involved in parks, Indian people that is, and try to get jobs, and try to work with tribes, and vice versa. And now that Jon has given me the opportunity to do this full-time, that means to me the Park Service is taking this serious, that this administration, including our secretary of Interior is taking this serious as well, and gives us more opportunity to open those doors.

"And again it’s not going to be easy, I understand that totally. As an American Indian I understand that," stressed Mr. Baker. "But as an American Indian I can also believe that I also have a better insight than maybe a lot of non-Indians do when it comes to working with tribes. And that’s what I bring to this table. I am so excited about having the opportunity to create these dialogs between the park management and the tribes that they’re associated with, and it’s not going to be easy, I understand that. But I love the challenge.”

Mr. Baker began his Park Service career in 1979 as a park technician at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site in North Dakota. In 1981 he moved to the historian position at Fort Union (N.D.) Trading Post National Historic Site before assuming the North Unit District Ranger job at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in 1985.

In 1990, he transferred to the U.S. Forest Service where he served at the Little Missouri National Grasslands, also in North Dakota; at the Beartooth District in Red Lodge, Montana, and; the Ashland District of Montana before returning to the Park Service in 1994 as superintendent of Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument, Crow Agency, Montana.

In 1997 Mr. Baker received the National Park Service Intermountain Regional Director’s Award for Cultural Resource Management and a team performance award for his work with the Indian Memorial at Little Bighorn Battlefield. He was named superintendent of Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma in 1998, and received the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Honor Award for Superior Service during his service at the park.

Mr. Baker is from Mandaree, N.D., on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The reservation is the home of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Tribes. Born and raised on his father’s cattle ranch, he spent his early years in a traditional Indian home and learned his culture through oral histories shared by clan relatives.

Mr. Baker attended reservation schools and was graduated from St. Mary’s High School in New England, N.D. He is a graduate of Southern Oregon State University, Ashland, Ore. Baker and his wife, Mary Kay live in the Black Hills. They have four grown children, a son, three daughters and seven grandchildren.

Comments

An absolutely excellent move -- long overdue -- by NPS. And an absolutely excellent choice in this man.


NPS could not have picked a better candidate for this position. Mr. Baker has been an inspirational leader and community member, no matter whether the assignment was with USFS in Red Lodge or NPS at the Battlefield. Congratulations!


I worked with Gerard during the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial when he came up with idea of the "Tent of Many Voices", a traveling exhibit allowing American Indians have a public speaking platform across the nation. He is quite the visionary, articulate, well educated...overall very impressive person. Great choice.

Rich Deline
Partnership for the National Trails System


This is great news. We can do nothing about the past, but make the most of present opportunities such as this.


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