Gover to take helm at NMAI

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WASHINGTON - The Smithsonian Institution has called on a familiar and respected name to follow W. Richard West, the National Museum of the American Indian's inaugural director. Kevin Gover will assume duties on Dec. 2, two weeks after West's retirement date.

''I am deeply honored to be the next director of the National Museum of the American Indian,'' Gover said in a Sept. 11 Smithsonian press release. ''The museum's mission of educating the public about living Native cultures is an important and challenging one, and I am grateful for the opportunity to build upon the strong foundation created by the museum's founding director, Rick West.''

Gover added in an interview, ''I just want Indian country to know that I am honored by this ... and I will work hard to protect their museum.''

His interviews with the Smithsonian selection committee were so extensive that he couldn't put a finger on any one factor that made the difference for him, he said. His priorities coming in will be to raise a permanent endowment fund and to create widespread access to the museum through new technology, he said.

As an accomplished attorney, founder of an Indian- and woman-owned law firm, former head of the BIA, and now a law scholar and professor at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, Gover brings an array of credentials to one of the foremost posts in Indian country. But he downplayed his profile on several of the more obvious qualifications, allowing only that scholarly credentials of the kind he has earned at ASU probably helped his candidacy, and that his extensive relationships among tribes and within the federal government probably didn't hurt.

Otherwise, as a fund raiser, where West and his lieutenants excelled, Gover said he's on new ground; his prowess during the early years of the Bill Clinton campaign for the presidency is wildly exaggerated, amounting to only some thousands of dollars, he said. His engagement with Native culture and art may not be obvious from his resume, he agreed, adding that it's real enough all the same after years of service on an Indian arts board in the Southwest, patronage of the arts as an attorney, and quality time with people and places throughout Indian country for decades now. As a reformer of federal bureaucracy, he considers himself overrated. Though his critiques of the paperwork burden and other problems at the BIA were considered cogent around Washington, he compared reform at the BIA to turning a battleship ... long after the order goes out, it just might happen. He's looking forward to a whole different experience at NMAI, he said.

''I get the feeling the museum is going to be light on its feet, very responsive.''

In any case, reform simply isn't the necessity at NMAI that it was at the BIA, he added. At the museum, the opportunity before him is to build on a foundation already established, he said.

He expects to count on assistance from others at the museum in fulfilling eight pages of job specifications. ''I told them I don't know anyone who could do all of these.'' But he is confident of his ability to give a good account of himself on many of them.

At the museum's national pow wow in August, where he was honored for his achievements in establishing the museum, West said in jest that the presence of Mohawk Tim Johnson as acting director during his transition proved that one doesn't have to be an Oklahoman or Cheyenne (West's tribe) to advance at the museum. The appointment of Gover, Pawnee from Oklahoma, won't help that argument any; and it won't be the first time the career paths of the two attorneys have coincided. Gover began his legal career at the Washington firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, where West had become the first American Indian to make partner in a national law firm. In an interview within recent years, Gover described him as a hero of his and ''my first boss.'' West later joined the Albuquerque firm Gover founded, Gover, Stetson, Williams and West.

Once the search committee contacted him through a third-party firm, Gover said, his friendship with West helped him to decide whether he was qualified for the job. West's friendship further assisted him in answering the Smithsonian's extensive questioning. But West had no role in the final decision that selected Gover from probably 50 to 60 final candidates, according to Linda St. Thomas of the Smithsonian's public relations department.

''He recused himself from all of those decisions,'' St. Thomas said, adding that West knew a number of the candidates personally. The selection committee interviewed 10 final candidates instead of the more usual two or three, she said, and Smithsonian acting secretary Cristian Samper made the final decision.

St. Thomas described Gover's strengths as presence, commitment to and familiarity with Indian country, and great ideas about broadening the audience of a museum that must appeal to general tourists as well as tribal communities.