Nearly two years have passed since Kevin Gover, an Oklahoma Pawnee Indian with a keen political sense and a strong record of defending Native American interests, became the Clinton administration's top Indian official with the universal approval of tribal leaders.

During that time, the tribal heads largely have adhered to an unwritten code of silence that has forbidden public criticism of Gover's leadership of the long-beleaguered Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Although they would speak out against federal Indian policy--and occasionally would take Gover to task on narrow issues in private--the tribal leaders have generally refrained from attacking him in public.

But that stance has changed. For the first time in his tenure, Native American leaders across the country have begun to openly express a loss of confidence in Gover. They are criticizing him on issues ranging from the distribution to Indian reservations of money appropriated by Congress to what they say are Gover's attempts to thwart the adoption of new tribal constitutions and tribes' efforts to increase self-governance on Indian lands.

The native leaders also are unhappy with what they say are BIA obstacles to the tribes' attempts to purchase land off their reservations and put it under federal trust. In addition, they are complaining about Gover's strident defense of the BIA, which is part of the Interior Department, in the face of evidence that over the years the agency has mishandled billions of dollars in natural resource royalties that have accumulated in trust accounts created to compensate Indians for the exploitation of their land.

"We are at the point where the honeymoon is over and the gloves are off," said Ron Allen, president of the National Congress of American Indians, the nation's largest Native American organization. "It's no more 'Brother, we are with you, no matter what.' "

Allen has steadfastly refused to criticize Gover publicly in the 20 months since the Senate confirmed him. But in a recent interview, he said Gover had become "insensitive in terms of working with the tribes" and was using his involvement as a defendant in a lawsuit alleging mismanagement of the $2.5 billion Indian trust fund as a "shield" for not being as accessible to tribal leaders as he once was.

"We have great appreciation for his intellect. The problem is, his actions don't match his rhetoric," said Allen, a member of the Jamestown S'klallam tribe in Washington state. Gover, a former lobbyist and lawyer representing Indian interests, said he was aware of the rising chorus of criticism but insisted the tribal leaders do not have the same national perspective that he has acquired since coming to Washington.

"Given the long, sad history of federal Indian policy, there's no reason in the world that they should sit back and say, 'Trust me,' " Gover said. "I accept the criticism as a price of making decisions, and I intend to keep making decisions. I work for the United States government; I don't work for the tribes now."

Gover added, somewhat wryly, "There's not a terribly long shelf life to this job anyway."

A recurring complaint among tribal leaders is the BIA's failure to meet an April 1 deadline for drafting a compromise plan that would revise federal funding formulas to take into account the economic self-sufficiency of tribes that are better off because of casinos.

A compromise agreement between Gover and Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), the Senate's staunchest opponent of tribal sovereignty, called for the BIA and the tribes to work out a fair redistribution formula by April 1. The tribal leaders met the deadline for their proposals, but the BIA has yet to submit its recommendations, prompting fears among many Indians that Congress may simply authorize Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Gover's boss, to arbitrarily disburse Indian appropriations.

"The BIA is great at setting deadlines but not so great at following deadlines," said Ben Hinmon, tribal council leader of the Saginaw-Chippewas of Michigan, one of the most politically and economically influential tribes in the country. "There is a great lack of confidence in the administrative ability of Kevin Gover here and among tribes everywhere."

The tribal council leader also criticized Gover for hindering the Saginaw-Chippewa tribe in its effort to draft a new tribal constitution allowing it to better address economic development and land management issues.

Other Saginaw-Chippewa officials complained that under Gover, the BIA had placed obstacles in the way of the tribe's efforts to place newly purchased land into federal trust status, thereby making it part of the reservation and exempt from state jurisdiction. Tribal attorney Richard Monette said the obstacles resulted from pressure from state governors.

"There obviously was a lot of pressure, but the bureau has a responsibility to help tribes put land into trust. Instead of being an advocate for the tribes, they are being a hurdle," Monette said.

Gover said the tribes had raised "a number of legitimate points" about the land-into-trust issue and said there was a need to change the regulations. He said that there are hundreds of pending off-reservation land acquisition applications, and that while he favors trust status for land adjacent to existing reservations, he is against granting such status for faraway parcels sought by tribes mostly for casino development.

Mamie Rupnicki, chairman of the Prairie Band of Potawatamie Indians in northeastern Kansas, who worked closely with national Indian leaders on the tribes' allocation plan for congressional appropriations, said Indians had "high, high hopes" when Gover was appointed.

"Those hopes have been shot down, and I'm very angry," Rupnicki said. "A majority of tribal leaders are disappointed. Who is [Gover's] loyalty to, the tribes or the people who are paying his salary?"

Rupnicki said she had made two trips to Washington at her expense to work on an appropriations allocation plan that tribal leaders believed reflected the needs of the reservations.

"First they said we were just advisers. Now it appears [Babbitt] can arbitrarily determine the tribes' funding, which could be based on means testing," added Rupnicki, whose tribe operates a successful casino and stands to lose funding if means testing is applied.

Gover said he and Babbitt are opposed to means testing, and he accused the tribes of refusing to deal with the issues of how much financial information they should disclose and what impact their wealth should have on the allotment of federal aid.

Gover said that he would "plead guilty" to missing the April 1 deadline on the allotment plan but that the BIA report is finished now and will soon be distributed to all tribes.

George Bennett, chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of northern Michigan and vice president of the Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes, said that although he appreciates Gover's efforts to overcome a lack of attention in Congress to Indian affairs, the BIA has been inconsistent in analyzing reservations' funding needs.

Some Indian leaders, though critical of the BIA, said they have sympathy for Gover because of the problems he faces correcting deficiencies that have existed for decades.

"Kevin can't meet the expectations of Indian country because he can't convince his boss to help us progress," said Charles Tillman Jr., principal chief of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma, referring to Babbitt. "Every time we get a new assistant secretary, we wind up with someone who becomes a puppet for the secretary because that is the policy that is set above his head."