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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's Columbus Day. The national holiday marks the discovery by Europeans of the land which would become America. For some it is a day of celebration and pride. For others, it is a more complicated day - a day of sorrow, a day of loss for the people who already inhabited that land.

Today, we have several conversations about the interplay of cultures that resulted from that journey so long ago. We'll tell you about a new memorial dedicated to the enslaved African-Americans who helped build New York. And we'll introduce you to a hot band that's all about mixing up ethnic and musical styles.

But first, we want to talk about the National Museum of the American Indian. One of Smithsonian Institution's 16 museums, it is a place dedicated to exploring the complexities that arise when cultures collide. It is a source of pride for many Native Americans and a place others can learn about the history, culture and concerns of America's native sons and daughters. So the museum's director holds an important role in Indian country.

Last month, the Smithsonian selected Kevin Gover to take the reins. Raised in Oklahoma, he is the member of the Pawnee Tribe. He's a professor of law at Arizona State University, a lawyer and the former head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He joins us now in our Washington Studios for a newsmaker interview to about his new post as director of the museum.

Kevin Gover, welcome.

Mr. KEVIN GOVER (Director, National Museum of the American Indian): Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: When you grew up - I assume you didn't grow up wanting to be the director of a museum that didn't exist. What did you want to do when you were growing up?

Mr. GOVER: I wanted to play middle linebacker for the Oklahoma Sooners. That's what I wanted to do. But it turned out I was small and slow, and so that was not an option. I decided I'd better get an education. And actually very - as a young man - a young boy, I wanted to be a lawyer. What it really was when my - when I was young my parents were part of a civil rights group in Lawton, Oklahoma and there were lawyers around. And I just thought those lawyers were pretty cool and they were smart and everybody respected them, and so I thought that looks like something I might want to do.

MARTIN: You weren't raised in a reservation?

Mr. GOVER: No. Oklahoma is a former reservation - the entire state. And I really grew up among Comanche people, I'm part Comanche as well as Pawnee. I had a lot of relatives and no reservations there.

MARTIN: We have an odd history in common. We both went to a boarding school...

Mr. GOVER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...in New Hampshire. And I think it must have been a stranger in a strange land experience for both of us. When you went, it was an all-boys school and it had been predominantly white environment, sort of elite environment. And when I went, you know, being an African-American girl in a formerly all-male environment. I'm just wanting to compare notes for a brief minute. First of all, how did you wind up in boarding school and what was that like for you?

Mr. GOVER: The story is that my father ran a community action program called Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity back in the '60s. And one of the people who worked for OIO - we called it - was a young man named Seamore Preston IV(ph). He was a young lawyer. He was a VISTA volunteer. And he was out there - just one of these, you know, smart young white kid's who just wanted to do good things for somebody. I was a pretty good student and he basically bullied St. Paul's into taking me. And in a matter of weeks, I went from being in public school in Oklahoma to being at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire. And I know you can relate to the culture shock that that involves.

MARTIN: Were there any other Indian kids there?

Mr. GOVER: There was. There was one other kid. His name was Gary George(ph) and he was from the State of Washington. And you know, once you get to know a lot about Indianans you know that an Indian from Washington, an Indian from Oklahoma have virtually nothing in common. Really. Except they're Indians. But of course, we buddied up pretty quick.

MARTIN: The reason I asked is because they often - people have an experience that's very distinct from the experience that most people on the community have this distance emerges. People wonder whether you are still of their own.

Mr. GOVER: Yeah.

MARTIN: It's are you still with us even though you've had life experience that are so different from the rest of ours. And I just wondered if you went through that yourself?

Mr. GOVER: Sure. And I still do. You know, I've had a career that - where I've really been in elite circumstances - starting at St. Paul's, on with college, being a lawyer.

MARTIN: Princeton. Went to Princeton.

Mr. GOVER: I went to Princeton.

MARTIN: Ivy league school.

Mr. GOVER: And being a lawyer. Certainly, it's an elite occupation. And their right to - I mean, in a sense, it's good that they remind us to say, hey, you know, you're one of us. Don't forget that. And I think that's a good thing. Keeps you humble, and we should be humble.

MARTIN: Why did you want this job, as director of this museum?

Mr. GOVER: Well, let me put it this way, when the current director Rick West announced he was going to leave, and Rick is an old friend of mine and a colleague at various times in our respective careers. I was literary part of a conversation where we were going, boy, what are they going to do to replace Rick? They can't find anybody to do that. And it really hadn't occurred to me that I might not only be a candidate but a successful candidate. And there came a point where, quite literally, I had went into the museum, looked around and asked myself, do you want to do this? Is this something you really want? And I realized immediately that I did and I wanted to do it.

MARTIN: Why?

Mr. GOVER: Well, a couple of reasons. First of all, the whole idea of telling the native story to the American public and to the international public is a challenge and an opportunity that's very difficult to resist for somebody like me.

Second, I believe that the museum will redefine who Native Americans were and are and help us dispel a number of the myths, stereotypes and inaccuracies, but even more tellingly, can be a key player in defining the place of these communities in American society, both now and in the future.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us. I'm talking with Kevin Gover. He has been selected as the new director of the National Museum of the American Indian.

(Unintelligible) different about the museum in contrast to, say historical museums, is that this is living practice.

Mr. GOVER: Yes.

MARTIN: For some people, this is remote and distinct. But for some people, this is current practice. This is the way people live now. They still wear regalia. They still observe, sort of, customs.

Mr. GOVER: It's an important point because the museum is not strictly historical. This is a center for the presentation of living native cultures. And, you know, people may come to the museum expecting to see the trail of tears and Custer's last stand and that sort of thing. And those were, of course, critically important events but they are not the whole of the Indian experience and they are not the whole of Indian present. What we're saying is these cultures are still alive and they can continue to change. Anything that we present is now more than a snapshot of the culture at that moment.

MARTIN: Do you feel a responsibility to present a counter-narrative on an issue like Columbus Day?

Mr. GOVER: Not really. And part of the reason is that much of that has already been done. You know, back in the '60s, when I was growing up, Custer was a cultural hero in the country and he fell fighting valiantly against the, you know, the savage Indians and on and on. And these days, you know, the mainstream, historical, narrative is Custer was nuts. He made some obvious mistakes and he was defeated by better generals and better soldiers. And so, so much of that work has been done that we don't feel the need to pile it on, in a sense.

MARTIN: What about a contemporary controversy? For example, recently, the whole question of the Cherokee Freedman - is that they were members of the Cherokee tribe who are descendants from African slaves who were owned by Cherokees, who have been disenrolled as a current issue.

Mr. GOVER: It is. And it's an important issue.

MARTIN: And is that going to be addressed by the museum?

Mr. GOVER: You know a museum is probably not a good place for sort of a first impression. The first impressions are being formed now and they're being played out in the political world where they belong. What the museum can do and what we will do is try to create some context for people to understand more of their relationship between African-Americans and Indians over their long history. And so, for example, we're working on an exhibit that basically talks about black Indians and their marriage and all these issues about what is race, what is culture. And I'm really excited about that.

I think that's going to be fascinating and, hopefully, we can reframe much of this conversation so that it's not - so that we don't see our selves as being so distinct. And that, in fact, all of us, as we often say, we're all related. And the museum is a place that can prove that intellectually and make a presentation that is compelling for the public.

MARTIN: Your selection was not without controversy, in part because of your tenure at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. You have the unique distinction of being both the plaintiff and defendant in a case, a very long-running case, class-action lawsuit alleging that the federal government mishandled Indian trust accounts. This is revenues that were derived from native lands...

Prof. GOVER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...that were put in trust for the benefit of Indian people...

Prof. GOVER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...and the suit alleges that this money was never accounted for.

Prof. GOVER: Yes.

MARTIN: And some people say just because of your position as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs that this sort of disqualifies you from leadership of this important cultural institution. What do you say to that?

Prof. GOVER: Well, first of all, there's not a lot of people who would say something like that.

MARTIN: I think that's a fair point.

Prof. GOVER: Yeah. There are...

MARTIN: But there are some and they've been very public about it.

Prof. GOVER: There are some and they're very public, and I understand their passion about the lawsuit. It's also a good place for sort of a first impression. The first impressions are being formed now and they're being played out in the political world where they belong.

What the museum can do and what we will do is try to create some context for people to understand more of their relationship between African-Americans and Indians over their long history. And so, for example, we're working on an exhibit that basically talks about black Indians and their marriage and all these issues about what is race, what is culture. And I'm really excited about that.

I think that's going to be fascinating and, hopefully, we can reframe much of this conversation so that it's not - so that we don't see our selves as being so distinct. And that, in fact, all of us, as we often say, we're all related. And the museum is a place that can prove that intellectually and make a presentation that is compelling for the public.

MARTIN: Your selection was not without controversy, in part because of your tenure at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. You have the unique distinction of being both the plaintiff and defendant in a case, a very long-running case, class-action lawsuit alleging that the federal government mishandled Indian trust accounts. This is revenues that were derived from native lands...

Prof. GOVER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...that were put in trust for the benefit of Indian people...

Prof. GOVER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...and the suit alleges that this money was never accounted for.

Prof. GOVER: Yes.

MARTIN: And some people say just because of your position as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs that this sort of disqualifies you from leadership of this important cultural institution. What do you say to that?

Prof. GOVER: Well, first of all, there's not a lot of people who would say something like that.

MARTIN: I think that's a fair point.

Prof. GOVER: Yeah. There are...

MARTIN: But there are some and they've been very public about it.

Prof. GOVER: There are some and they're very public, and I understand their passion about the lawsuit. It's absolutely clear the United States did not meet its obligations. And you'll never hear me deny - you never would have heard me deny it even when I was part of the United States government.

I'm one of the 300,000 Indians who owns some of this property, and who, it is alleged, have not been properly paid. You know, the disagreement between my self and the plaintiffs has less to do with the merits of the case but more about what do we do about it now and how shall the trust look in the future.

And there we had some very legitimate, very deep disagreements but I think legitimate ones and the right issues are being brought forward. I don't think that disqualifies me from doing other jobs and I certainly take a backseat to no one in terms of my commitment to the future of native America.

MARTIN: You take your seat as director on December 2nd.

Prof. GOVER: Yes.

MARTIN: When you finish that term of office, whatever - however long it is, how will you know that you have succeeded in that job?

Prof. GOVER: I will know whether I succeeded by my own standards, which are extremely high. I want the museum to be the place that when any serious student of Native American history, culture, linguistics, art, et cetera, wants to explore that interest that they think of this museum and this is the place, quite literally the leading scholarly institution in the world concerning Native Americans. And when I say Native Americans, of course, that includes the natives in Central and South America as well, as well as North America.

There are metrics by which we can measure success as well. For example, we want more visitors but I also know that I'll leave things undone and that it's up to the next people, and the next people, and the next people. And I'm comfortable with that.

MARTIN: Kevin Gover is the designated director of the National Museum of the American Indian. He's currently a professor of law at Arizona State University. He officially begins his new role later this year.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. GOVER: You're welcome.

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