Kevin Gover is the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. But he hasn’t forgotten his three year tenure as the Bureau of Indian Affairs assistant secretary under the Clinton Administration.
He told ICTMN’s Rob Capriccioso working for the BIA was the best job he’s ever had that he will never do again. Still, Gover has some advice for the incoming BIA assistant secretary, Kevin Washburn, as Washburn begins his tenure.
Gover answered Capriccioso’s questions about the gig here:
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.
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