American Indian leaders are speaking against the hiring of an ASU law professor to lead a museum on the history of the nation’s tribes.
Last week, the Smithsonian Institute named Kevin Gover the next director of the National Museum of the American Indian. Gover, a Pawnee from Oklahoma, has taught classes on federal regulation and Indian law at Arizona State University since 2003.
Some critics point to Gover’s work as director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1997 to 2000 as the reason he shouldn’t head the museum.
Gover has never worked for a museum.
“An appointment such as Gover’s, laden with political baggage, raises its own questions,” said an editorial in Indian Country Today, a national weekly newspaper.
Much of the opposition, however, is aimed at Smithsonian officials, who chose Gover without consulting the museum’s board of trustees. The Washington Post reported on the dispute Wednesday.
Gover defended the Smithsonian hiring process, but said the trustees’ complaints are legitimate during a phone interview with the Tribune on Thursday.
“This museum is different,” Gover said. “It has a very specific and very challenging constituency and one that we’ve really got to work hard to make sure we’re communicating with.”
The American Indian museum opened in 2004 atop a prominent spot on the Mall, across from the U.S. Capitol. The museum's curving limestone exterior, so different from the stately marble buildings that surround it, conjures images of open fields in the Great Plains.
The museum also holds an important, and controversial, spot in tribal politics.
No matter whom the Smithsonian hired, anger and opposition was inevitable, said Traci L. Morris, a training coordinator with Native American Connections in Phoenix.
“They could have picked the tribal leader who was traditional Lakota and had never been off the reservation and it would have ticked off the Navajo,” said Morris.
Local reaction to the hiring has been supportive.
Heard Museum director Frank Goodyear said Gover is well suited for the job and will help continue collaborations between the two museums.
Gover took over the Indian affairs bureau as tribes sued the federal government over the loss of billions of dollars from Indian trust accounts. A federal judge held Gover and other top Clinton administration officials in contempt of court when the bureau failed to provide records to the tribe’s lawyers.
“There were no allegations that I personally had interfered with any effort to get it done, or that I had deliberately not done it,” Gover said. “But there was no question the agency failed to meet its responsibility.”
The Post reported that a third of the museum’s board have complained to the Smithsonian that they felt left out.
The hiring committee included only three of the 25 trustees, which represent tribes across the country.
Smithsonian officials seek diversity when filling committees, said Eileen Maxwell, a museum spokeswoman. The institute isn’t reconsidering Gover’s appointment.
“It’s final,” Maxwell said.
The museum is getting a director that has experience working with politicians and the tribes, Morris said.
Gover said his job will be prying funding from Congress and ensuring “Indian country” that the museum will continue to show history from the American Indian viewpoint.
He will be the museum’s director, not its curator, Gover said. And the opposition proves the museum remains relevant.
“The good news about this is that people really care about this museum,” he said, “Indian people really care.”