Q&A With NPS American Indian Services Specialist Otis Halfmoon
Having worked with the National Park Service for 25 years, Otis Halfmoon is a wealth of information. He’s the kind of person you could listen to for days on end and you’d still want to hear more. From battlefields and historic trails to recreation areas and international affairs, we recently chatted with Otis about his National Park Service career and the importance of national parks.
What does a national park mean to you?
A national park is a place to reflect about one’s self. A place to consider the historical event that took place and/or to see America’s cultural and natural resources. It is truly a place to save for generations not yet born. A national park is also an area to hear the untold stories of various nationalities. In this sense, to enrich an already rich story. They are truly the gems of America.
What was your first national park experience and how many national parks have you visited in total?
My father was the Tribal Chairman of my Tribe. Senator Frank Church and he were very instrumental in the creation of Nez Perce National Historical Park in 1965. It was created to tell the story of a living culture through their history and today. The very first superintendent was Robert Burns, and he was an excellent ambassador to the Tribe. He gained the trust of my People, including the elders and my Dad. Superintendent Burns’ staff was extremely friendly and worked well with American Indians. Superintendent Burns hired tribal members and listened to the stories of our elders. He was an outstanding ambassador. Since that time, I have visited national parks in the Virgin Islands, Hawaii, Alaska, and all over the lower 48.
Why did you decide to work for the National Park Service and how long have you worked for NPS?
I always wanted to work for NPS because of the influences of observing the staff at Nez Perce National Historical Park. They were telling the stories of my People, my elders, my home. I saw this as an opportunity to let the world know about my Tribe and also what American Indians have contributed to American culture. I saw working for NPS as an opportunity to tell the untold stories that were not in history books; the good, the bad and the ugly of the relationship between the United States and American Indians. I have worked for the National Park Service for 25 years.
Where have you worked during your National Park Service career?
- Big Hole National Battlefield, Interpreter
- Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Interpreter
- Bear Paw Battlefield, Site Manager
- Nez Perce National Historical Park, Idaho Unit Manager
- Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, Tribal Liaison
- International Affairs (New Mexico), Tribal Liaison
- National Trails Intermountain Region, Tribal Liaison
- NPS Office of Relevancy, Diversity and Inclusion, American Indian Services Specialist *current position
How does the National Park Service/National Park System help tell American Indian/tribal stories?
Back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, American Indians wanted these four words known across the country, “We Are Still Here!” While NPS is good at telling our history at places like Nez Perce National Historical Park, Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, we need to do a better job letting visitors know that the Tribes are still here. We can also talk about Tribes at our natural parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone and Everglades. And, we can include Tribes at Civil War battlefields and Alcatraz. In many respects, the Tribes are cataloged with “Cultural Resources” or “Archaeology and Anthropology, ” and the National Park Service needs to revisit the idea of a senior level position for Native American affairs.
What is your most favorite memory within the National Park System?
I think of two stories, but I will only tell one. But, in a sense, both are similar. The National Park Service can bridge cultures. It can promote healing between races and nationalities. My home reservation was in the path of Lewis and Clark in 1805.The National Park Service took the lead with the Bicentennial of the Corps of Discovery and there was discussion among the communities on how to work with the National Park Service and Tribes. In many respects, the story of Lewis and Clark is a tribal story, and the public knew this fact. Around many American Indian reservations, and in neighboring communities, racism is alive and well. There is much hatred toward the neighboring Tribes. The Corps of Discovery of 1805 came across many contemporary communities that had such ideas. But, they knew they had to work with the Tribes. To make a long story short, the Bicentennial of the Corps of Discovery with the National Park Service had many Tribal members sharing a meal, with smiles and laughter, with a community that felt hostile toward Indian people.
Do you have any tips for families visiting national parks or tips on engaging kids in the park or program experience?
The opportunities to create a positive dialogue with American Indians and the National Park Service are many. For instance, working with tribal schools and/or communities and re-introducing them back to their homelands. Many Tribes live on reservations that are not located on their ancestral home. And, within these ancestral home areas are National Park Service lands. To bring tribal youth to these areas can be the beginning of a very positive experience for the tribal youth and the people wearing the green and gray uniform. I was very impressed with Superintendent Robert Burns when I was a kid and I then wanted to wear that same uniform. Just think about how many of these tribal youth will keep that memory of that person wearing the green and gray uniform and someday, they could wear that same uniform.
How can people get involved and give back to the national park or program where you work?
Our National Park Service is for American citizens and people around the world. We are a nation of many colors, not necessarily a “melting pot,” but rather a “tossed salad” where every ingredient stands proud, where we live together and understand each other’s cultures. We need people to support the national parks, help us preserve the resources, and help us use the parks to heal between cultures. That is what people can do.
What words of wisdom would you like to share with our national park community?
Diversity and inclusion do not happen overnight. We have been working on these areas for a few generations and they will improve through the dedication of National Park Service leadership. There will be a day when the Indigenous people can trust the leadership and the leadership can trust the Indigenous people. It will take time and the youth of today will take the lead. Perhaps someday, we can have a “mosaic” gathering of National Park Service employees.
Wilfred Otis Halfmoon, 62, is a member of the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho. He was born in Lapwai, Idaho on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation. He currently works as the American Indian Services Specialist in the Office of Relevancy, Diversity and Inclusion for the National Park Service. He has a B.A from Washington State University and is also a veteran of the U.S. Army (Honorable Discharge). He follows and believes in many of the tribal traditions of his Tribe. He is a powwow M.C. and also a Northern Style Traditional Dancer. He resides with his wife, Virginia, at their family home near Espanola, New Mexico.
Photo credits: National Park Service, Dita Baranek/Share the Experience photo contest, Katherine McEnaney/Share the Experience photo contest, Iris P/Share the Experience photo contest