Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) since 2007, is one of the few Native American leaders who have helmed the main Indian affairs branch of the United States government, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), serving there as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs during the Clinton administration from 1997-2000. During Gover’s tenure, he gained first-hand experience of what it means to advocate for tribes in the context of working within the federal system—and what the shortfalls and chances for success really are, even given a presidential administration that wants to be friendly to tribes, but doesn’t always know how to be the best of friends. Sometimes tribal leaders will get mad at you: “If you go into this job in order to be popular, you’ve made a bad choice,” Gover shares. “You can be a friendly and supportive fed, but you’re still a fed. If you get confused about that, or think that popularity in Indian country is going to assist you in doing your job to the exclusion of maintaining your credibility within the Department, then you’re probably in for a rough ride. Nobody cares within the Department how popular you are with tribes.” With that background as context, Indian Country Today Media Network asked Gover, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation, for advice for the newly confirmed Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, Kevin Washburn, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation.
How does being head of the NMAI compare to having been the leader of the BIA? Are there any similarities?
Almost none. Being the Assistant Secretary is all about having a great deal of responsibility, but very limited authority to deploy resources as you see fit. There’s no point in complaining about it, or suggesting that it should change, because I don’t know that it can. That’s just the way it is. So you don’t have nearly enough authority to achieve the kinds of outcomes we’d all like to see.
Do you end up feeling really stymied in a position like that?
What you have to do is take your opportunities when they arise. The Bureau may have very little capacity to create a wave, but we should be able to ride them when we see them. Two examples: In the middle of the Clinton administration, there was a lot of focus on safe streets and police officers, and the Bureau was able to get involved in that initiative, which increased law enforcement on reservations. It was not enough, but it was better than it had been. And at the end of the Clinton administration, there was some money after the budget was balanced, and we were able to get close to a billion dollars in more funding for the Indian affairs budget across the agencies. We got a lot of money for school construction under that. The Assistant Secretary and his staff have to really be watchful and aware of the overall political discourse in order to latch on to the things that are going to actually see some progress. The job is also largely about making decisions. Most of my days back then were taken up with meeting different tribal delegations about particular issues, and then making decisions to try to move a particular issue forward. And the tribes aren’t going to win every one of those arguments. And the Assistant Secretary can’t just afford to think about one case; he has to think about the next case, and the case after that, and the long-term implications of the decision at hand. One of the downfalls of many Interior Department administrations is that they are reluctant to make decisions. You can’t do that. You have to do the best you can, and move on.
What are some of the major challenges that Kevin Washburn is facing?
First of all, it’s strange to come in at the tail end of a president’s term, but it does give him these couple of months to intensely study what’s been going on. He hasn’t been in Washington for a long time, so he will be getting caught up of all the details. Catching up is no small matter. Next, he has to confront the reality that decisions about Indian affairs have been being made all over the Department—not just at the BIA. His predecessor [Larry] Echo Hawk recused himself on a lot of key issues, including Cobell, trust, and the federal recognition cases. That means somebody else, somewhere else in the building, has been handling those issues. Those are major responsibilities for the Assistant Secretary to get back under his portfolio. I also hope the White House allows him to bring in some of his own staff to help him get up to speed, so he doesn’t have to worry about working with others who have their own agendas.
Many in Indian country saw Mr. Echo Hawk’s tenure as strong, but his recusals did disperse Indian affairs, as you say—was that dispersal unusual?
It’s not unusual for it to happen, but it is unusual for it to be structural the way it was just expected that Larry would recuse on certain issues. Those who picked up on the issues that he recused himself on may start to consider themselves the experts on those issues, which can be a problem.
Any lessons we can take away from Mr. Echo Hawk’s tenure?
I think Larry was a good Assistant Secretary who created enormous amounts of goodwill with the tribes by being out there and making clear to tribes that he cared very much about what is going on in Indian country. That can never be a bad thing. I think the lesson that Kevin could learn from that is not to lose touch. It’s far too easy to do once you’re inside the Beltway. I learned so much more from being in a community and seeing it firsthand than I ever could learn from meeting with them in Washington. Indian leaders talk differently to you in the formal structure of D.C. than they do when they are on the reservation.
You talked about the feeling of reluctance to make decisions that affects some leaders at BIA. Why do you think that happens?
There is really nothing in the experience of a typical person that prepares him to become Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. So you go in, and you are sort of stunned: ‘Oh really, I decide that?’ A smart person is going to say he needs some time to think. But usually, delaying a resolution doesn’t make anything better. More than likely, it makes things worse, so you might as well make the decision and take the hit as soon as possible, rather than let it sort of grind you down.
You end up making decisions that displease some tribes—is it hard as a tribal citizen to know that some of your tribal friends are going to get mad at you over some of these decisions?
There’s no escaping it. One reality of being Assistant Secretary is that for the most part you are only exercising authority that has been delegated to you by the Secretary of the Department of the Interior. So, in the end, the Secretary is the boss, and you’ve got to be willing to go out and defend a decision that you might not agree with. Ideally, you’re deeply involved in the decision and you have an opportunity to advocate for the pro-tribal position, but, once a decision is made that is not your decision, you’re still obliged to implement the decision. If you go into this job in order to be popular, you’ve made a bad choice. You can’t be confused about who you work for. The Assistant Secretary takes an oath to the United States. You are a fed. And there’s no escaping that. You can be a good fed. You can be a friendly and supportive fed, but you’re still a fed. If you get confused about that, or think that popularity in Indian country is going to assist you in doing your job to the exclusion of maintaining your credibility within the Department, then you’re probably in for a rough ride. Nobody cares within the Department how popular you are with tribes.
Are there differences in what an Assistant Secretary can achieve under Democratic versus Republican administrations?
I do think that Indian affairs have had a higher visibility in the Clinton and Obama administrations than they did in the two Bush administrations and the Reagan administration. There were more people in appointed positions who took an interest and were anxious to be helpful. Having supportive people in the White House is also very important.
Do you think the increased politicization in Washington is beginning to drift toward Indian issues?
I think that Indian affairs have traditionally been bipartisan, and I think the way Congress is now working on them is bipartisan. Even that Kevin got easily confirmed during an election period shows that there are some things that don’t get caught up in the partisan battle. It is important that we continue to practice non-partisanship when it comes to Indian affairs.
Mr. Washburn has already hit the ground running since starting on the job this fall, saying he plans to release a long overdue tribal jobs report in 2013, expressing concern that gaming has wrongly “hijacked” the federal Indian policy agenda, and promising to clean up the federal tribal recognition and trust systems, all while strongly promoting tribal self-determination. One of his first decisions was denying the Mashpee casino in Massachusetts because he believed it was too kind to the state in terms of fees. Does it signal anything to you about his leadership?
What is clear from the speed at which that decision came down was that the decision had largely been made. The Department seemed headed in a certain direction. While I’m sure he would have had the opportunity to change it if he disagreed, the good news is that it was moving in a direction that he obviously supported. It was a good, strong start.
Everyone is still talking about the possibility of the fiscal cliff—how should Mr. Washburn be treading here?
Here’s what I would do: First, take it for granted that you don’t get to decide whether sequestration goes into effect. Nobody cares what the Assistant Secretary thinks about it. So, you can’t really influence the outcome. What you can do is prepare for the worst, but hope for the best. It seems certain that Congress won’t let it happen—they will do something. While they are developing that something, you need to be in there, kicking and pitching and making sure that the interest of the tribes in the federal budget are as well-protected as you can make it.
Do you think Mr. Washburn has sharp enough elbows to make that kind of fight?
Let me tell you something: Being a law dean isn’t for sissies [Washburn was previously dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law]. Law faculties are about the most difficult group of people I’ve ever been around. All are very certain of their importance and their insight. To be able to manage in a situation like that bodes well for being able to manage in the kind of situation he is going into. On the other hand, it’s like going from Triple A to the major leagues. We’ll see if he’s got the sharp elbows he’s going to need. Although it’s not all about being aggressive. Sometimes it’s about being clever. Sometimes it’s about staying out of sight. You just have to use a lot of political judgment.
The Obama administration has done some strong things for Indian country. At the same time, there have been shortfalls at the Interior Department—missing tribal jobs reports under federal law, a missing federally recognized tribes list, failure to testify on federal tribal recognition in the House. These seem like elementary political issues. Why are they happening?
I’m not sure what to make of it. I think that it’s very important for the Assistant Secretary to deliver on the basics. If you’re going to have credibility when you’re talking about what we need in Indian country, you need to be sure your agency can deliver on the assignments that it already has. On the missed opportunity to send a staffer to testify before the House on federal tribal recognition this summer, I cannot imagine why that happened. I can’t imagine not sending a representative to a hearing you had been asked to attend. Period. All you’ve done is make some member of Congress very unhappy with you, and there’s nothing to be gained from that. I don’t get it. Kevin has a honeymoon period to say that these were problems before he got there. But you’ve got to admit that they didn’t happen the way they were supposed to, then say what you are going to do about them. If it makes sense, ask for help. Nothing makes a congressman or senator happier than when you ask them for help. They can be helpful. How much effort should Mr. Washburn spend on pushing for a legislative Carcieri fix? Every time anybody asks, he should voice loud and strong the position of the administration for a clean Carcieri fix.
The land consolidation component of the Cobell settlement is going to take up a lot of resources at Interior in the coming years—how does he focus on the whole new mandate that was not developed by him?
That program is in large part for the advantage of the Department to create a set of facts that make it possible to effectively administer the trust. When there are 2,000 owners of a single parcel, that parcel cannot be effectively managed. So, the whole idea of land consolidation is more to the administrative advantage of the department than the economic advantage of the tribes. The real interest in land consolidation should be to make sure that they spend all of that $2 billion on acquiring interest in land for the benefit of the tribes. The real concern is that they set up a system so complicated that they’re not able to spend the money. That would be a tragedy. If I were Assistant Secretary right now, I would put a lot of energy into what the trust system should look like going forward.
How should Mr. Washburn work with tribal leaders?
I think he needs to establish an alliance with the tribal leadership, and the tribal leadership needs to establish an alliance with him. In some ways, the only political clout that the Assistant Secretary has is the political clout of the tribal leaders. Standing there alone, Kevin Washburn, Kevin Gover, Larry Echo Hawk—they don’t have any juice to be in a political fight with a member of Congress, or somebody else in the administration. But with the tribes behind them, then the Assistant Secretary actually does have some political clout. That’s a key element of success in the job to the extent that success is possible.
Finally, do you ever, ever miss being at the BIA?
What I tell people is it’s the best job I ever had, and I would never do it again. The stress was one of the worst elements of the job. But the stakes were so high that there could be some real immediate moments of satisfaction and achievement—that you have done something important.