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Gover reflects on BIA changing of the guard

TULSA, Okla. - With only a few months left as Interior's assistant secretary, Indian affairs, Kevin Gover reflected on his tenure as the head of the BIA and its future as an effective agency.

"I think there is always going to be a place for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. First as the primary trustee of the tribes and for Indian lands, second as a policy coordinator for the executive branch of the United States, and third as the primary funding agency for the indefinite future for tribal governments.

"There is going to be a BIA for the indefinite future."

Gover, a Pawnee tribal member, has been in office since November 1997. As a political appointee, he plans to leave following the November election.

He was in Tulsa to receive a 'Newsmaker of the Year' award, and with good cause. His three years in office have been wrought with turmoil as tribes throughout Indian country test the limits of tribal sovereignty in the new millennium and look with a critical eye to the BIA for assistance in their growth.

Gover found himself in the middle of controversy as he tries to keep up with the changing face of Indian country - Indian gaming, issues with state governments and tribes vying for federal recognition, among the issues.

He sees changes that have to be made by the BIA if it is going to be a successful partner to Indian nations across the country but he emphasized the BIA has been changing over the past few years.

"People are fond of calling the bureau paternalistic, but we've long crossed that bridge, I think. I don't hear anything from the people that I work with in the bureau, with any desire for or evidence of a paternalistic attitude."

He said it's an easy thing for a tribe or an individual Indian to say, "You're not doing what I want. You're being paternalistic."

The reality, he said, is that "we really very rarely disagree with tribes in matters of judgment. Where we do tend to disagree with tribes is as to what our or their responsibilities are under the law. We may refuse to do something because we think it is illegal, but we won't do it or refuse to do it simply because we think we know better than them, we don't do that anymore."

Gover said, tribes have to understand the last thing the BIA wants is more control over them. "We can barely do the bare minimum that we are legally required to do. We're not out looking for more to do."

The complaints are "the same old tune" and they make it more difficult for the BIA when it goes to Congress for more tribal funding. Gover said such complaints are an abdication of the tribes' own responsibilities.

"It's a very convenient thing to blame the bureau for any problems that are out there. In this day and age, the tribes have to take their share of responsibility and even blame when things don't go the way they would like.

"I think over the next two years we are going to see tribal people beginning to hold their tribal governments more accountable for what is going on in the community. After all, the tribes now are the primary service providers in most areas, not the bureau or IHS."

Gover sees the problems of urban Indians looming on the horizon for his successors. With an estimated 63 percent of all Indian people living away from tribal land, health care and education benefits available on Indian land are not available for the majority of them.

"They are left out, they absolutely are. The bureau right now, we estimate, would have to quadruple its budget just to meet the needs that exist among reservation Indians, and that's only half the Indians in the country."

Because of budget constraints, even reducing services to the off-reservation population hasn't kept the BIA and IHS from losing ground in their abilities to provide services for Native people, Gover said.

"In 1975, when the Indian Self-Determination Act was passed, the amount of expenditures per reservation Indian was four times what it is now. Now we are passing those programs over to the tribes and it's the ultimate in a cruel hoax.

"In 1975 the Congress said, 'OK tribes, we're going to give you the resources you need to deliver the services in the way you want them.' Then we pulled the rug out from under them by not providing the kind of funding that they require."

Shifting responsibility onto tribes caused problems within tribal governments throughout Indian country and made it a difficult decision as to when the BIA has to step in to help solve inner tribal disputes. It is sometimes a gray area misunderstood by tribes, Gover said.

"The line really gets crossed in terms of what is the actual authority of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We don't have some sort of broad supervisory authority over the tribes. We can't come in and say, 'You can't have this chairman, it has to be this guy.' We just don't have the authority.

He emphasized that in the case of improper activities at a casino, the BIA has no authority. "That is the business of the National Indian Gaming Commission. They are the regulatory body and we stay out of their business."

The bureau becomes involved "when we are engaged in a transaction involving that tribe. So, when self-determination contracts come up for renewal, we have to look at who it is that is purporting to represent the tribe when they sign the contracts. If we don't think that is the properly constituted leadership, then we won't do business with them. That is the point that we draw the line and say, 'We won't work with you.'"

Individual tribes must resolve inner tribal problems. "It sets a lousy precedent ... we intervene on these things very reluctantly."

If the tribe can't make its government work, the assistant secretary questions if the BIA can do so. As long as there is a chance the tribe can work it out, the BIA will stay out of it, Gover said.

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With more tribes trying to be recognized, that issue has become a gray area for the BIA. But Gover said he believes no hard and fast rule can be set for intervening in such problems.

Requests for federal recognition by tribes are growing and Gover wants to see the process taken out of the hands of the BIA.

"We support the idea of setting up an independent commission to hear and resolve these questions." One reason he cited is that the bureau "has been so very slow at this. We are handling something like two petitions a year, maybe two and a half. There are 170-something petitions in line. At that pace, neither of us is going to be alive when it is all done.

"That's one reason. We just aren't doing a good job at it. Second, the stakes of the outcome in these recognition cases have become so large that it has become a very adversarial process. The bureau isn't set up as an ad judicatory institution. The issue has really outgrown us and outstripped our capabilities to deal with it in a prompt way and maybe in an appropriate way.

"In the meantime I am going to continue to exercise the authority that the law gives me to recognize tribes through the process."

Gover said he believes the Clinton administration has given Indian Affairs far more attention than it ever received, "at least since maybe President Grant. Indians have had more access and more opportunities to bring their issues to the president than in any other administration in my lifetime."

He said that may have set a standard hard for any president, Republican or Democrat to back away from. "I think Indians will continue to have access to the president and that is good."

Perhaps the most lasting contribution President Clinton has made is that he "kicked open the doors of all the other federal agencies to the tribes. Each department in the government now has a consultation policy for the tribes. Again I think there is no turning back. What we used to call 'Indian Desks' are now complete offices with six, eight, ten desks."

Gover said the bureau is "hopeful we will make a real breakthrough this year on the budget ... If we are successful we will be able to say that in the last three years the Indian budget grew 25 percent. If we can keep up that pace for five or ten years, then we will begin to see a level of resources going to the tribes that give them a real chance to succeed in these service programs."

He also credits the Clinton administration with igniting the current competition between parties for the Indian vote.

Gover said he believes recent statements by Texas Gov. George W. Bush regarding his policies toward Native American issues is due more to his limited experience than hostility toward the tribes.

He added that Indian people should be trying to educate the Bush campaign on government-to-government relationships. "I think it indicates a level of ignorance on the part of Gov. Bush, but I do not assume that he cannot learn about Indian sovereignty."

Gover said Vice President Al Gore has a much better understanding of the government-to-government relationship with tribes because he has been working with them for the past eight years.

Now a 'short-timer,' Gover said he's still trying to accomplish what he can for both the BIA and Indian country. He is concerned about the Individual Indian Monies.

"I have concerns about that. First of all, we have to acknowledge that the lawsuit and the Congressional pressure has finally forced the department to take trust reform seriously and to make a genuine effort toward really overhauling the trust system.

"Second, the Congress is supporting that with its appropriations. For each of the past two years, the department has gotten $100 million. We are beginning to turn it around."

However, he said the problem is that "there are people out there who have staked their reputations on the proposition that the BIA cannot succeed. They then set out to do everything in their power to prevent us from succeeding. That includes certain members of Congress. That includes some the plaintiffs in the Cobell litigation.

"They will harass this agency and create obstacles for it at every opportunity because they have bet their reputations that the bureau cannot succeed and now they are out to make sure that we don't.

Gover said, "Those guys were on the Hill last year to carry out the program and we whipped them and we got the money because the Congress didn't buy what they were saying. These people went to that judge and asked him to take the trust functions away from the BIA. We whipped them, the judge refused to do it. But they won't give up because they want a lot of money and, two, they've never been so important in their lives as they are as long this litigation goes forward.

He admonished Indian country to take a hard look at that litigation and understand the stakes. The assistant secretary said he doesn't believe some of the positions the plaintiffs are taking represent mainstream opinion in Indian country.

"They are dangerous and while I do give them credit for creating the pressure that was necessary for trust reform, I think that they are potentially a very dangerous and destructive force."

Even after the battles Gover says he will miss the job. "I have had a great time doing this. It is so rewarding in so many ways. There is a part of me that wishes that I could just keep doing something like this indefinitely."

He understands a new president will want his own people in office and Gover said he wanted to spend more time with his family. "I owe them financially and I owe them emotionally. I need to spend more time with them than I have in this job. That doesn't mean I don't love it."

Gover likes his job so much he plans to stay in the politically charged Washington, D.C., area.

His thoughts about the next Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs?

"Whoever has this job in the future is going to have my enthusiastic support. It is hard enough to do without a bunch of armchair quarterbacks sniping at you from the sideline."