The incoming director of the National Museum of the American Indian vowed on Monday to be a "servant" to Native people and to help them tell their story to the world.
But Kevin Gover, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, said he doesn't want the Smithsonian to focus too much on the past. Though he once apologized for the mistreatment of Native people at the hands of the government, he believes the museum's focus lies in the present.
"I would not want to see the museum turned into something like the Jewish Holocaust Museum," Gover, the former head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said on Native America Calling
yesterday. "It's an incredibly important part of the story but it's not the story. The story is that we are still here."
Gover, however, said he wouldn't object to an exhibit that might focus on issues such as genocide, repatriation or other historical wrongs. A caller to the radio show challenged him to present a more accurate view of Native people to the millions of visitors who have passed through the museum doors since it's opening in September 2004.
"We had an opportunity here to tell the story of what happened to us as Indian people and I think we missed that opportunity," said a Marlene from the Yakama Reservation in Washington.
"It was more of a contemporary version of who were are -- not what we've had to encounter from the federal government."
"i agree ... that the story is not as direct as it might have been," Gover said in response. "The good news about this museum, and any museum, is that they change."
Gover, who is currently a professor at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, wants the museum to dispel stereotypes and present Native communities as vibrant and persevering. He characterized the status of the current exhibits as a success in that regard.
The former Clinton administration official also responded to criticism from Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the Indian trust fund lawsuit. Though he was held in contempt of court in the case, he denied that he played an active role in mismanaging the assets of account holders.
"It wasn't for my mismanagement of trust funds," he said of the contempt charge. "Those had been quite thoroughly mismanaged before I arrived."
A caller to the show blasted Gover as well. Steve from the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana
said the new director was "not a friend to the Indian people" and questioned why someone without museum experience was selected to lead the institution.
Another caller objected when Gover said his hiring as director was not "political" in nature. Besides working for the Interior Department, Gover has experience in lobbying and Democratic fundraising.
"This is Washington, D.C. Everything is political," said Ruby from the Hopi Reservation in Arizona "You're there not as a scholar or museum person but as a person who can leverage money for the museum ... and go up to the Hill and advocate for us."
Gover acknowledged that fundraising will be a major portion of his job. "Now the museum will be looking for adequate money to maintain its operations," he said.
Beyond the financial aspects, Gover wants to position the museum as a place not just for the 500=plus federally recognized tribes in the U.S. but for unrecognized tribes, First Nations in
Canada and indigenous people in Central and South America as well. Some unrecognized groups and Native communities outside the U.S. are currently represented in exhibits at the museum.
The museum director "is a leader with tens of millions of bosses out there, meaning the Indian people who are trying to tell their story to the rest of the world," said Gover.
Gover is set to take the reins on December 2. He succeeds Rick West, a member of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, who ran the museum for 17 years.
National Museum of the American Indian - http://www.nmai.si.edu
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Kempthorne - http://www.indiantrust.com