First Person: Kevin Gover, Director, National Museum of the American Indian


(D.A. Peterson)
September 20, 2013

I was a lawyer by trade. I had spent 25 to 30 years working in Indian law and policy. When you practice Indian law, you become an amateur historian, because so many of our cases are deeply rooted in the history of the particular tribe that we’re working with. You absorb by osmosis. Just being around and listening. But I never imagined myself being a museum director.

The most important statement the museum makes is: “We’re still here.” We’ve had a history that contributes very importantly to not just the history of the United States, not just the history
of the Western Hemisphere, but to the history of the world. There aren’t that many Indians in the U.S., and so we tend to get overlooked in many ways. And when we’re not overlooked, we tend to be misrepresented. Everything from Squanto to Tonto, you might say. And that’s been true in the museum world as much as anywhere. And so
this museum has an opportunity to really correct the record and bring people to a better understanding of Native history and culture.

One of the things we all learned in grade school was about Squanto, the friendly Indian who helped the
Pilgrims. Everything seemed to be really happy. And then you start asking, “Well, I wonder what happened to Squanto’s people?” They never tell you that part of it. His name was Tisquantum, and he had been to England twice. At least one of those times he was kidnapped by an English sea captain who took him back to Europe, and he managed to make his way back to the Americas two times. But what they do is sort of reduce him to a one-dimensional kind of figure, important only in the sense that he taught the Pilgrims to grow corn. Which was probably nonsense, actually. So when we’ve been reduced to these sort of caricatures, why should we be taken seriously? We’ve all been taught this stuff, and so now we have to find a way to un-teach it and get people to think of Indians in a whole different way.

And by the way, the mascots and
the movies contribute to our being caricatures. I think that it is outrageous that Indians are used as mascots at any level, high school, college or professional. Here in Washington, insult is added to injury literally by the use of that word [the name of the football team]. They can dress it up any way they might want to, but it is a racial, pejorative term. It’s one that I grew up with, and it wasn’t said with affection. It was meant as an insult. It was meant to hurt and provoke. On a daily basis I see that image and hear that word used casually and constantly. You do get a thick skin, and it doesn’t ruin my day, but I don’t see why I should have to experience that when it can be changed.

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