April 9, 2003: A moment with...

Kevin Gover ’78

Kevin Gover ’78 will leave a Washington law practice in July to join the faculty at Arizona State University’s program in American Indian law. Gover, a member of the Pawnee tribe, has been fighting for civil rights since age eight, when he picketed at a swimming pool that discriminated against African Americans. He was named Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs in 1996, and on the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (B.I.A.), Gover issued an eloquent public apology for the wrongs done to Native Americans by the B.I.A. He received an honorary doctorate from Princeton in 2001. Gover spoke with PAW’s Argelio Dumenigo.

Do you prefer the term Indian or Native American?

Either one. As a friend of mine says, “They’re both equally inaccurate, so you can use them interchangeably.” I am a Pawnee, not simply a Native American. Not to mention that the origin of the term “American” came long after the arrival of people like me on the continent.

What do you see as the biggest issues facing Indians right now?

The social pathologies at work in Indian communities are the primary challenges. Despite all of the progress in a variety of areas, alcoholism, substance abuse, violence against women, and the sexual abuse of children remain at unacceptable levels in tribal communities. These are devastating social maladies that for some reason we still have not managed to make unacceptable in our communities. There’s a lot of shame in our culture at this point, and that shame works against us because it means we want to cover up problems like alcoholism and substance abuse. The hopeful thing is that the recovery movement is getting stronger, so you see a lot of 12-step groups springing up on reservations.

The Indian casino industry is worth about $13 billion. What is its impact on Indian culture?

It’s had a very dramatic impact. For the first time, the tribes have some discretionary income. So they’re beginning to overcome – in some cases – centuries of poverty. That can only be for the good. There are some downsides, but they’re really fairly subtle and unimportant compared to the primary effect, which is to eliminate poverty.

How are the casinos changing the way Indians are viewed?

That’s one of the downsides. If the tribes begin to be perceived as a little too powerful, a little arrogant, a little selfish, then public opinion will turn on them and the industry will begin to suffer. We’re beginning to see some of it in Connecticut, and we’re beginning to see it in California. Other than that, I think the public perception of Indian gaming is basically, “Hey, it’s about time the Indians caught a break.” And certainly, to the extent that people vote with their pocketbooks, they’re showing up at the casinos in bigger numbers every year.

What about the issue of federal recognition for tribes? There have been calls for a moratorium on recognition from Connecticut legislators.

No matter what they say, this is ultimately a racial issue. It’s because the Pequots and the Mohegans have become so economically powerful. No one cared when the Pequots and Mohegans were living in trailers out in the woods, but now that they’re the major employer in the region and have some economic power, and the ability to buy land and businesses, they’re a little more threatening. It will simply take some time for people to become accustomed to the idea that Indians can exercise economic power responsibly.

What is the Native American attitude toward the B.I.A.?

The relationship between the tribes and the B.I.A. has always been a love-hate relationship. On the one hand the tribes insist, and quite rightly, that the B.I.A. do its job better. On the other hand they don’t let anybody else attack the B.I.A. because the B.I.A. is the primary symbol of the relationship between the tribes and federal government. What’s interesting now is that 90 percent of the B.I.A.’s employees are Native Americans. It’s pretty much a mirror reflection of the tribes themselves in terms of its culture, its abilities, and its shortcomings. Neither will move forward without the other.

Why did you decide to leave your law practice for academia?

Arizona State came to me and showed that there was a commitment to creating a national Indian law program that could really become a center for policy analysis as well. That was very attractive to me. I’ll always want to have legal clients, and a cause, and something to work on besides the strictly academic. I think it’s helpful to keep a foot in the theoretical and in the practical. One of the problems in legal education arises from the ivory tower setting in which the law is studied. Indian law is currently taught by teaching a series of cases out of the 1830s that are now absolutely dead letter. They may as well never have existed since they have so little to do with current reality.


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