Gourneau: Kevin Gover unquestionably best choice to run NMAI


As Native peoples, the National Museum of the American Indian can be viewed as our own Native place in our nation's capital. I make this analogy, not only because of the symbolism attached to the close proximity of our museum to the Capitol, but also because the shadow of that dome looms over us as a constant reminder of the injustices inflicted on us and the challenges before us. And, to further the analogy, as with any effective institution debate is necessary and welcome. But debate must be predicated upon fact.

The facts related to Kevin Gover and the facts of Cobell v. Kempthorne are different from the unsubstantiated statements that have circulated this past week. These are the facts.

A very serious word - ''cronyism'' - has been tossed around casually about two distinguished Native Americans: Gover and W. Richard West. It has been used wrongly to describe two people who know and respect each other. Gover worked in a law firm where West was a partner: Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Kampelman in Washington, D.C. They worked together for two years, starting 24 years ago, from September 1983 to February 1986. Gover started his own firm in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1986, and West joined that firm in 1988. They enjoyed a good partnership. And that was nearly 20 years ago. West, as most readers know, has directed the NMAI for 17 years.

The Indian world is small, less than 2 percent of the U.S. population. It would be difficult for Gover and West not to know one another. They are Native American men who were born in Oklahoma. They are lawyers who moved to Washington, D.C. (because that's where federal Indian laws are made), and dedicated themselves to securing and championing Native rights. Indeed, most of the final 10 applicants we interviewed for the NMAI directorship know one other; once worked or currently work with at least one other candidate; are now or have been in the past associated with NMAI; are from the same nation, state or region; or are related in other ways.

''Museum professional'' has been tossed around lately too, with the implication that Gover isn't one. ''Museum professional'' is a relatively new term in the field. Museums have become complex institutions over the years. They haven't been, for a long time now, simply repositories for collections. They also are educational organizations, centers of cultural and community outreach, agents of social change and forums for civic engagement. The standard formulas for museum directors (i.e., anthropologist, archaeologist, historian, administrator) increasingly do not apply. We take pride that our museum is developing new norms and is a Native place.

There are many highly successful museum directors who did not start out as so-called museum professionals, and West is one of them. To name just a few others: Ellen V. Futter of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, David M. Hillenbrand of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and John W. McCarter of the Field Museum in Chicago. Futter was president of Barnard College for 13 years before becoming the museum director in 1993. Hillenbrand spent 28 years in executive positions with Bayer before becoming Carnegie Museum's president in 2005. And McCarter was senior vice president of Booz Allen & Hamilton Inc., before becoming director of the Field Museum.

Gover is a leader dedicated to public service, a scholar, and an advocate for Native Americans. While at the Interior Department, he managed 10,000 employees and a $2.1 billion budget. For the past four years, he has been on the faculty at the prestigious Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University in Tempe as professor of law. And for all of his adult life, he has fought for and championed Native American rights as a student, a lawyer, a presidential appointee, a judge and a professor.

Cobell v. Kempthorne

In 1996, a class action lawsuit was brought against the U.S. government.

The suit alleges that, pursuant to the General Allotment Act of 1887, the U.S. government mismanaged, for more than 120 years, funds collected from peoples and companies that leased lands belonging to individual Indian people.

That lawsuit was filed in 1996 before Gover took office as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs in 1997. Furthermore, Gover agreed with many of the allegations against the government then as he does today, 10 years later.

The lawsuit named Interior, the U.S. Treasury Department, and the BIA as the defendants. When the U.S. Senate confirmed Gover as U.S. Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, he assumed policy oversight of the BIA and inherited the lawsuit. As the secretaries of Interior and Treasury, Bruce Babbitt and Robert Rubin also were pro forma named as defendants.

Civil contempt charges were brought against the Interior and Treasury departments and the BIA in 1998 for failing to produce in a timely manner documents plaintiffs had requested in discovery. Secretary Babbitt, Secretary Rubin and Assistant Secretary Gover were not accused of playing personal roles in the failure to produce the documents. When the court found that the agencies had failed to meet their responsibilities, the secretaries and the assistant secretary did not appeal the contempt citation, because they agreed that the documents had not been produced in a timely manner.

Later, when the court held a trial to determine whether Interior had breached its trust responsibilities to Indian trust beneficiaries, Secretary Babbitt and Assistant Secretary Gover testified that Interior had in fact breached its responsibilities over many decades and accepted responsibility for working to improve the system and compensate the beneficiaries.

These are not the acts of people who do not care about American Indian people. They are the acts of public officials who care very much, and who inherited an Indian trust system that was on the verge of collapse. They accepted the responsibility and worked to improve the system.

A note about the Smithsonian Museum director search process

I understand the concerns a few members of the NMAI board of trustees have for the Smithsonian Institution's search and appointment process for its museum directors. But the selection and hiring of Smithsonian museum directors is the sole responsibility of the Office of the Smithsonian Secretary. It is the same process for all 18 Smithsonian museums. The secretary's office engaged the NMAI in several ways, first by appointing three current and one former NMAI trustee, and including four Native people, ensuring that the NMAI and the Native voice was an integral part of the selection process. The search committee was then tasked to review and interview candidates and make final recommendations to the Smithsonian secretary. This was done and the secretary made the final decision. The process is confidential to protect the names of the highly qualified individuals who sought this position.

In closing, I want to tell you that the NMAI is fortunate to have Gover as its next director. His depth of knowledge, wide experience and fine intellect will serve NMAI and Native America well. At ASU, he and his colleagues worked diligently to convene forums on an array of broad topics and pressing issues, from the federal trust, mascots, and cultural preservation to gaming, federal agencies and Indian tribes. He is committed to an NMAI that will be a forum for all issues important to Indian country. His expertise and intricate knowledge of national and international Native matters will enable the NMAI to convene leaders and scholars to discuss challenges facing Indian country and to encourage the development of solutions. We can do this in an open, deliberate and respectful way.

I am proud of the NMAI, both where it has been and where it is going. I support the appointment of Gover and believe he will excel in guiding us in the coming years.

Dwight A. Gourneau, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, serves as chairman of the National Museum of the American Indian board of trustees and was a member of the NMAI Director Search Committee.