Kevin Gover, 61, is the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. A member of the Pawnee tribe, he was born in Oklahoma. He and his wife, Anne Marie, live in Northern Virginia.
Do you prefer being called Native American or American Indian?
I’m indifferent. [Laughs.] As a friend of mine says, they’re equally inaccurate, so you can use them interchangeably.
What is accurate?
What each tribal nation calls itself, whatever they choose to call themselves, then that’s what they are first and foremost. An identity as a Native American is secondary to your tribal identity. And then your identity as an American is also part of your makeup. If you ask 10 Indians which they prefer, you’ll get at least five different answers.
There’s so much that most Americans don’t know about Native American history. What’s something we all should know?
Just a basic civics lesson: That Indian tribes are governments. That they are part of the federalist system. It’s not quite the system that was envisioned by the founders, which would have been much different and the tribes much more independent than they are. But certainly the existence of Indian tribes on a permanent basis was anticipated by the founders and the Constitution.
Is there a question that Native Americans get tired of being asked?
I think native people actually welcome questions and are very responsive. It’s more that you meet somebody and they say, “Are you Native American?” And you say, “Why, yes, I am.” And they say, “Well, you know, I’m part ... ‘whatever’ myself.” Usually Cherokee. And quite often their ancestry includes some Native American royalty that doesn’t exist. In a way, it’s off-putting. On the other hand, they’re trying to connect. Which is an interesting phenomenon — that Americans somehow feel a need to show some native ancestry that demonstrates deeper roots than they might otherwise have.
Indian leaders have talked about the pipeline protests at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota as a reawakening for tribes. What’s your sense of what’s happening out there?
It’s something like that. It’s not surprising, but what I can’t explain is why this issue has caught fire and sort of unified Indian Country, because these kinds of things are going on all the time. Some insult or degradation of tribal property rights or tribal environmental interests are happening on an ongoing basis. But it’s quite a phenomenon. I haven’t seen something like this in many, many years. The reason the other tribes support them is they all have suffered some similar insult.
How many tribes are there?
There are 568 federally recognized tribes, and they range in size from a few dozen people to several hundred thousand people.
I imagine you feel pressure to represent 568 different stories. How does that play out?
When the museum first opened, we basically had 24 tribes represented. And each got to create their own little exhibit. One of the things that occurred to us was that we’re a national museum and so we really should try to tell national stories instead of smaller stories. And so that’s the direction we’ve taken.
Is the museum more for tribes or for visitors?
In our actual spaces, here and in New York, it has to be for the visitors. We have other programs and projects that are more wide-ranging and really intended for the audience outside the museum. But inside the museum it has to be for the visitors who come, only a small percentage of whom are Native Americans. Now, we’re happy that when Native Americans do come to the museum, the overwhelming majority like what they see. If they didn’t, we would have a real problem. But that’s sort of preaching to the choir, and we’re trying to get to the congregation.
The museum has been open 12 years. Are there any parts of its mission that you feel it hasn’t met?
The answer is yes. There are thousands of stories that remain untold that, over time, the museum can and will hopefully address. Our charter goes beyond the U.S. It goes to Canada, Mexico, Central America and South America. So there are thousands of communities out there that we haven’t reached and haven’t presented. So in one sense our work will never be done.
Second, I think that what is expected of any museum will change over time. So what they did at the opening here was the right thing, which is to say, we’re still here and we’re diverse. We’re not any one thing. And the museum delivered that message effectively. Now we’re looking at these national stories and thinking about how Americans learn and interpret history and how we might contribute to their doing that better. What we’re taught in school about Indians is mostly wrong. What we get from popular culture about Indians is almost entirely wrong. And so we shouldn’t be surprised that people don’t know very much that’s true about Indians. So we think about what can we do about that.
What’s the gravest threat for Native Americans today?
Surely one of them, perhaps the largest, is the ignorance of the non-Native public about the Native American past and present. Because that leads to misunderstanding in evaluating contemporary issues. Take Standing Rock, for example. If you knew nothing about the history of the Sioux Nation, the United States, the Missouri River itself, you might well conclude, Well, look, everybody has to have a pipeline at some point, so why should they be any different? And that would be a perfectly rational point of view.
But if you know what the history of the Sioux Nation is, you know that treaties were made with the Sioux Nation concerning these lands that no longer belong to the Sioux Nation. And you know that the development of the Missouri River for the past century has always, always involved taking of Indian land. They were building dams up and down the Missouri, and every Indian reservation along the way was flooded. Some of the best land was flooded, which only deepened their poverty and made it that much harder to climb out. So we should know that kind of history. We need to know that in order to know what equity is in this contemporary situation.
It has almost become a cliche to ask Native Americans how they feel about the term “Redskins.” But is there any argument for the team using that name that you would accept?
No. I experience that as a racist word. As an insult. As something that’s meant to disparage people like me. And so, no, there is no acceptable use of that word.
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