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Ex-BIA Head to Lead Museum of American Indian

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A man whose agency was once sued by Indian tribes will become the next director of the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Kevin Gover is a member of the Pawnee tribe and a former director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the Clinton administration.

NPR's Libby Lewis is following this story.

Can you just describe for those who haven't visited, the institution that he's going to head?

LIBBY LEWIS: This is one of the newest museums in Washington, D.C. It's right down on the National Mall. It's a beautiful, beautiful museum and it's dedicated to the history of all of the native peoples who have been oppressed by the U.S. government.

INSKEEP: And so why would Kevin Gover be the man to head this for the Smithsonian Institution which runs the museum?

LEWIS: Well, Kevin Gover is a Pawnee Indian. He would - he grew up in Oklahoma as a member of that tribe. He was kind of a rising star in the American Indian community. He went to Princeton. He went to law school. He made a great legal career fighting for water right for Indians. And then in the 1990s, President Clinton appointed him to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

INSKEEP: So was his selection now to head this museum acclaimed?

LEWIS: Mostly acclaimed. He has lots of accolades as a smart guy, a great manager who knows how to deal with lots of different points of view, which you need to do to run this museum. But his time at the Bureau of Indian Affairs has gotten him some criticism especially from those who are very active in the huge class action lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the government over the way that it's handled billions of dollars that the government held in trust for Indian peoples.

INSKEEP: What was this money that the government is holding in trust?

LEWIS: It was money that the government said that it would pay Indian peoples for using their land, their resources and it hasn't been paid. And the question now is, how much should be paid? And for that...

INSKEEP: When you say their land and resources, is this like oil drilling, resource extraction, that type of thing?

LEWIS: Oil gas. Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: And the money has gone to the government, not the Indian tribes. And it was supposed to get to the Indian tribes eventually and they alleged it didn't get there, a lot of it didn't get to them.

LEWIS: That's right.

INSKEEP: And Gover was accused of some kind of a role in this or at least his agency was?

LEWIS: Well, he headed the agency at the time that it was being targeted by these Indian groups who've sued. And indeed, while he was there a federal judge found him in contempt along with his boss, the Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. And the judge found that the officials had failed to turn over records as part of this lawsuit.

INSKEEP: So you tracked this man's story and you get a sense of the continuing controversy over Native Americans in this country and land use issues involving them as well. Now, what does Mr. Gover have to say about accusations that were made against him?

LEWIS: Well, he's in this, really, rich position. He just - he understands exquisitely their argument. He feels very sympathetic to criticism of the government because he knows what the government did. But at the same time he feels a loyalty to the government for his time there and helping it rectify itself.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that he's saying that the government may well have been wrong in this case, even the government that he was part of?

LEWIS: Absolutely. And indeed, just at the end of his tenure, he gave an extraordinary speech that was to mark the 175th anniversary of the bureau. Here he stands, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and he winds up basically detailing the dismal record of the U.S. government's treatment of American Indians.

INSKEEP: NPR's Libby Lewis on the appointment of Kevin Gover to head the Museum of the American Indian. Thanks very much.

LEWIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Libby Lewis
Libby Lewis is an award-winning reporter on the National Desk whose pieces on issues of law, society, criminal justice, the military and social policy can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Day to Day, Weekend Edition Saturday, and other NPR shows.