Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) since 2007, is one of the few Native American leaders who have led the main Indian affairs branch of the United States government, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA); he served there as assistant secretary—Indian Affairs during the Clinton administration, from 1997 to 2000.
During Gover’s tenure, he gained first-hand experience of what it means to advocate for tribes in the federal system—and what the chances for success really are, even with an administration that wants to be friendly, but doesn’t always know how to be the best of friends.
Indian Country Today Media Network asked Gover, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, for advice for the newly confirmed assistant secretary—Indian Affairs, Kevin Washburn, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation.
How does being head of the NMAI compare to leading the BIA? Are there any similarities?
Almost none. Being the assistant secretary is all about having a great deal of responsibility, but a very limited authority to deploy resources as you see fit.
Do you end up feeling stymied?
You have to 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 involve 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.
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 Kevin Washburn is facing?
He has to confront the reality that decisions about Indian affairs are 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, handled those issues. Those are major responsibilities for the assistant secretary to get back under his portfolio.
Any lessons we can learn from 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. 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 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 protribal 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 into Indian issues?
I think that Indian affairs have traditionally been bipartisan, and I think the way Congress is now working on them is bipartisan. The fact 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 nonpartisanship when it comes to Indian affairs.
Washburn hit the ground running, 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 to deny the Mashpee Wampanoag casino in Massachusetts because he believed it was too kind to the state in terms of fees. Does that 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 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 Washburn’s elbows are sharp enough for that kind of fight?
Let me tell you something: Being a law dean isn’t for sissies [Washburn was 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 [of them] 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 has 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 good 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, failing 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 Washburn spend on pushing for a legislative fix for Carcieri v. Salazar?
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 settlement of Cobell v. Salazar 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 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. That’s a key element of success in the job—to the extent that success is possible.
Final question: Do you ever miss being at the BIA?
I tell people 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 had done something important.