Questions arise about NMAI choice


The long-awaited proclamation of a successor to W. Richard West as head of the National Museum of the American Indian is over. The Smithsonian on Sept. 11 announced its selection of former BIA Chief Kevin Gover, Pawnee from Oklahoma, to take over the reins. He will become the second director behind fellow Oklahoman Indian lawyer West, who has been at the helm for the past 17 years. The choice of Gover met with immediate controversy.

Coming off an exceptional summer of programming including the acclaimed contribution of Indian wisdom to the global climate crisis during its July 7 Mother Earth concert event, and its spectacular National Powwow, the NMAI had been riding a wave of goodwill in Indian country for drawing national and worldwide attention to the ''Native place'' in the nation's capital. Its programs are effective and well-directed.

Presenting a new captain with little experience during a time when nearly every suspicion of Washington cronyism turns out to be true is risky and unfortunate - for the museum and for the Smithsonian (already rocked this year by scandal). Post-Abramoff, the delicate thread by which the perception of Indian peoples hangs is easily broken and arduously restored. Now more than ever, the museum must be above reproach in order to fulfill its mission to represent all Indian people and to educate the public about Native histories and cultures.

An immediate and outspoken critic was Eloise Cobell, lead plaintiff in Cobell v. Kempthorne and adversary of Gover since his tenure as head of the BIA in the late 1990s. In a Sept. 12 press release, Cobell expressed ''outrage'' at the hiring of Gover, who as assistant secretary of the Interior was held in contempt of court for repeated failure to produce court-ordered documents in the Indian trust fund class action lawsuit.

Were Cobell's admonition of Gover's hiring only that of a remote disgruntled former associate, it might have slipped past without much attention. However, such is not the case. Cobell is an active trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian who serves as chair of its vitally important Resources Committee. The Resources Committee oversees policy and practice of the museum's departments of human resources, finance and budget, and development. Her stated opposition and shock over the selection of Kevin Gover must be taken seriously as they necessarily raise serious questions about his qualifications, or lack thereof, for the job.

The first of two essential qualifications is the ability to raise funds in an Indian country environment now highly attuned to business and administrative ethics. Gover's placement may have derailed any, if not all, potential for tribal support. Stated Cobell, ''What this means is that the Smithsonian has hired someone to head this important museum who has literally thumbed his nose at Indian people - some of the poorest people in the nation.'' Question number one: Why would tribal leaders, who have worked so hard to fight for justice and lift their peoples out of poverty, donate to the NMAI when its director was found in contempt over the mishandling of Indian trust accounts for thousands of impoverished American Indians?

The second of two essential qualifications is experience in administering a large and complex museum. Gover has no experience in the museum field, much less experience guiding any museum approaching the scope and scale of the NMAI. It is here, were Indian country to swallow, hook, line and sinker the storyline that this is a good thing, where skepticism necessarily emerges. Question number two: Why is it better that Gover possess no museum qualifications whatsoever?

Cobell also drew attention to the museum's lack of consultation with its board of trustees. ''It is especially troubling that the Smithsonian would not discuss the new director with the trustees,'' Cobell said. ''I find it even more troubling that they would select an individual who showed such disrespect for Native people to head the museum.''

The exclusion of trustees may well have been a gaffe in this charged process, one exacerbated by the fact that Gover and West have long been friends and former business partners. Their career paths as lawyers have crossed often, most notably in 1988 when West joined the firm Gover founded, Gover, Stetson, Williams & West PC. Questions regarding conflicts of interest have followed Gover since his 2000 departure from the BIA. His jump from federal official to private practice was closely observed when he immediately went to work lobbying on behalf of tribes over whose rulings he had prior oversight. Devoid of concern over appearances, Sheila Burke, Smithsonian deputy secretary, said Gover ''was in full compliance with the rules.'' Still, doubts linger and they certainly will find new life as this discussion continues.

The question of leadership must be answered well and cautiously by NMAI and the Smithsonian. An appointment such as Gover's, laden with political baggage, raises its own questions. Eloise Cobell is a respected and persistent figure in national Indian circles who, from within the museum, has voiced concerns about the leadership succession process. With exhibits painstakingly critiqued and fund raising a major priority, can the museum afford to have its integrity and experience questioned?