Kevin Gover

Director of The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)
Headshot of a man.

Photo by  Ken Rahaim

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"NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Kevin Gover: I—I think the most important thing is to leave your assumptions outside. Just try to be open to whatever it is you may encounter. Some of it will be familiar. I mean, everybody knows a little something about Indians. But, most of it will not. And so, we need our visitors to really be receptive to a different understanding than they've had up to now.

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Jo Reed: That’s Kevin Gover. He is director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Established in 1989, The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, or NMAI, is home to more than 800,000 Native artifacts from throughout the Western Hemisphere, an archive of more than 125,000 photos and a vibrant collection of contemporary Native art. It also offers a range of exhibitions, film and video screenings, school group programs, public programs and living culture presentations throughout the year.

The building on the National Mall opened in September 2004 and it’s the first national museum in the country dedicated exclusively to Native Americans. And Native Americans have had leading roles in the design and operation of the museum. The stunning five-story, 250,000-square-foot building, with its sweeping curving walls is a golden-colored Kasota limestone, designed to evoke natural rock formations. And it’s set on over four acres of indigenous landscaping.

But as singular as the building is, and believe me—it is, Kevin Gover, who is Pawnee and has been the museum’s director since 2007, believes it’s only the beginning.

He says, “While the physical foundation is certainly impressive, the intellectual and philosophical groundwork of the NMAI is just as important. This metaphysical foundation was built by Native thinkers, Native culture-bearers, and Native artists. And at its core—Native objects and artifacts in the museum’s collection and exhibits are presented as part of the histories of living, as opposed to vanished, cultures.”

The museum’s mission is to help facilitate an informed understanding of Native peoples by presenting and celebrating the culture, history and arts of hundreds of indigenous tribes and nations. It’s an enormous task, and the enormity of that task was where I began my conversation with Director Kevin Gover.

Jo Reed: In looking at the mission of the National Museum of the American Indian, it is enormous because it isn't just about representing the 568 nations in the United States, you're charged with promoting and representing all the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle straight down to South America. How do you even begin to get your arms around that?

Kevin Gover: We were also assigned Hawaii by Congress. So obviously, you can't be in any respect encyclopedic in—in trying to present these various cultures and peoples. And so, the best we can do is really give a sample, try to build it around a big story and let the visitor know that—that there's much, much more to be learned and if you don't see the tribe you were looking for in this material, rest assured that eventually we’re going to get to that tribe and—and tell a story about them.

Jo Reed: Can you talk a little bit about the involvement of Native peoples with both the conception of the museum but also its implementation and its running?

Kevin Gover: Yeah. So, the museum is very much the result of Native advocacy. Folks who were working with the Museum of the American Indian in New York City in the 1980s really saw an opportunity to—to create a Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. The New York museum had fallen on hard times and its magnificent collection was in—in some jeopardy. And so, it was a very complicated transaction that resulted in the establishment of the National Museum of the American Indian. We maintain a museum in New York City, one here on the National Mall and then a state-of-the-art conservation facility for the care of the collections out in Suitland, Maryland. And that was all part of this grand bargain that was struck by the Native advocates, by the city and state of New York, by the Congress and by the Smithsonian. Congress specified that we would have a board, that it would consist of a majority of Native Americans including Native Hawaiians, and basically, empowered this board in a way that few other Smithsonian boards are empowered. So, they keep an eye on us, that board does, and sort of ensures that we’re being true to our constituents, the—the Native peoples. But, finally, it's—it’s just a philosophical matter for us that you cannot present these cultures without the involvement of the peoples whose cultures they are. And, yet, well into the 1980s and thereafter, there were a great many museums who just felt that they were the experts on Native culture and that their views need not be sullied by—by the involvement of—of Native peoples themselves. Now, that's changed dramatically. I think it was changing before this museum was established, but I also have no doubt that the establishment of this museum and the way it chose to do its work has hurried that process along. So, you would see very few museums out there right now who would dare to present material about a particular tribe without involving that tribe in its interpretation.

Jo Reed: Well, the museum was created in 1989. It's been 30 years and I wonder, if you think about those 30 years, and of course, I understand you have not here for all of those 30 years, but looking back, what do think its major accomplishments have been?

Kevin Gover: Well, certainly its most important accomplishments was that it opened these three magnificent facilities, and I can say that because I wasn't in involved in any of that. I got to come along after most of that hard work had been done. But we shouldn't assume that these places were inevitable. It took a lot of work. It took a lot of thought, a lot of fundraising, a lot of work with the tribal communities all over the Western Hemisphere to make these—these facilities come into being. But I also think our primary responsibility after opening these facilities was to make sure that we’re a very, very good museum—that we do the work that museums do and do it extremely well; that goes along with being part of the Smithsonian. And I do think that we’re a very, very good museum.

Jo Reed: It strikes me, and I'm sorry I can't remember off the top of my head, but a startling number of Americans don’t think that Native Americans even really exist anymore. It—it knocked my socks off. And so, a museum is a place with artifacts and it's often seen as the repository of the art of dead people. And having a Museum of Native Americans, that sort of doubles that burden for you.

Kevin Gover: It absolutely does. First, as—as you say, there are a great many Americans who don't realize that the Indian Nations are still here. And that there still are Indian people who identify first and foremost as—as being citizens of their tribes. A lot of our visitors come here expecting teepees, and—and war bonnets, and bows and arrows, and they’re very disappointed when they don't see the things that they’d hoped for. You know, there's a lot of literature out there that says people come to museums to confirm what they already think they know. And if you come to this museum, unless you are extremely knowledgeable about Native people, and—and, you know, not that many people are, we're unlikely to confirm what it is you think you know. And so, that can be disconcerting for the visitor and disappointing, frankly, to the visitor that we’re not giving them the story as they’ve learned it. So, one of the things that we make a point of doing is in every exhibition, including our historical exhibitions, we try to bring them into the present and say these people are still here, and these issues that we’re describing are still contested to this day, and that Americans inherit, all Americans, new Americans inherit, the responsibility for the maintenance of this relationship between the Indian Nations and the United States, and try to create a sense of civic awareness, civic pride and civic obligation to people that the things they do, the ideas they support, all have an impact on Native Americans.

Jo Reed: The other thing that I—I would think would be a challenge is that the majority of people might not be aware that there are still Indian Nations that are vital in the country but boy do they have a sense of a representation of who Native peoples are through popular culture.

Kevin Gover: Yes. Yeah, so most Americans got their information from two sources, their information about Indians. First, in their formal education, K-12 usually. But second, from the popular culture. And, unfortunately, the education system, certainly while I was growing up but I think continuing to this day, fails to give a proper understanding of who Native people were and certainly about who Native people are today. And in the popular culture, I mean, you really couldn’t find a worse place to get accurate information about Indians. It's full of stereotype. It's full of really quite derogatory content. And what it does is render Indians less than fully human. And so, I've had the experience of people saying to me, “Well, you're not a real Indian,” because I—I don't hunt bison or fight with spears and bows and arrows. I don't know any magic and I don't have a spirit animal. Those ideas didn't just grow up in their heads independently. They picked them up somewhere. And, of course, they picked them up primarily from the popular culture. But, you know, the real challenge for us is we don't want to make fun of people who think those things because we understand that they came by it honestly. They know what they were taught. And we have to find a way to communicate with them and say, “Look, you're not the only ones who believe this. We believed it too because we were taught these same things and we—we digest the same popular culture that you do. So, we get it. But we would like you to, basically, join us in trying to dig beneath that and find the things that are really true rather than—than the fairytales that we all got taught.” You know, National Native American Heritage Month, it had to be in November, of course, because that's when Thanksgiving happens. And we all know the story of the pilgrims and the Indians and the first Thanksgiving and all of that. And it's a fine story. You can certainly understand why we Americans like that story because, you know, it's about bounty. It's about being good neighbors and racial harmony and freedom from religious persecution. And, you know, that's all good stuff. Sadly, most of it is just untrue. And so, we—we think that from that day on, every November, the pilgrims had a feast with the Indians. Well, they didn't. It happened once. It was a thing that happened and everybody kind of forgot about it. But then the story was basically given new life in the 19th century, 200 years later, because it's a cool story. It—it sounds really nice, you know. The pilgrims arrived and Squanto, the friendly Indian, taught them how to grow corn and all that stuff. When, in fact, it was a very complex engagement between people who were really different from one another. And we don't do them justice when we reduce it to a fairytale.

Jo Reed: But how do you complicate these myths in a museum? Because it's not a classroom and—and you have a different charge. And you're dealing with images as well as text and it's—it’s a little bit of a challenge to do that. I mean people like their myths. They hang onto them.

Kevin Gover: They do. They do and with good reason. And that's where we have to choose a way to communicate with them to say, “You're not stupid, you're not dumb, you’re not mean to have believed…

Jo Reed: “You’re not wrong.”

Kevin Gover: Yeah. You're not wrong to have believed these things. But then we have to say, but the real story, the real story is so interesting. It’s so cool, and so much better, in fact, than the mythology. And sort of help them along to a different understanding. People are smart. You know? And they're very receptive to new information as long as you're not being holier-than-thou or being—being smart-alecky with them. You can tell them things that—that they didn't know and that they didn't know they wanted to know. So, it's all a matter of tone. It's all a matter of connecting with them on a level that they're willing to listen.

Jo Reed: Can you talk a little bit about your permanent exhibition Americans? Because I think that speaks to this, in some ways.

Kevin Gover: Yes, it—it very much does. In fact, I—I think that’s sort of the state-of-the-art for us at this point on how to tell some of these stories. So, Americans is, in a sense, a history exhibit because it talks about very familiar stories-- The story of Pocahontas, the story of the Trail of Tears, the story of Little Bighorn. And so, it contains some real history. But then we—we show the visitor how these stories changed to become something very different from what they were in contemporary, right now, popular culture. And so, if you think about Pocahontas, she's a Disney character who wore a cocktail dress made of deer skin and talked to the animals. When, in fact, she was an extraordinarily important historical figure whose impact lasts to this day. Similarly, the Trail of Tears was taught as this isolated tragedy that befell the poor Cherokee people who, despite being noble and—and brave and doing their best to adjust to the circumstances of being surrounded by settlers, were removed and forced on a long march to Oklahoma and thousands of them died along the way. All of that is true. But it doesn't begin to represent the scale of the removal project. The United States set out to remove every Indian between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River, and the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. Imagine, just the sheer scale of that is hard to grasp. And so even though the schools now teach the Trail of Tears, they don't really dig into the scale of this removal policy and the motives behind the removal policy. It's just sort of accepted as gospel that this was civilization replacing savagery when it was really something very different, and the Indians that—that lived in that part of the world they were not savages. They had towns and villages and nations, their own cultures. They were self-sufficient. They were prosperous by most measures. And so, it's best understood as being one of the most massive transfers of wealth from one group of people to another that's ever taken place in human history. You know, the Trail of Tears just sounds too small. And Little Bighorn is a particularly odd thing for us to all want to remember. It was a massive defeat of American arms. It was stunning to the country. The country couldn't believe that a bunch of Indians could defeat Custer and his troopers. And so, you have to wonder why we seem to kind of celebrate that and say wow that was—that was really kind of awesome what the Sioux did. So, we—we invite the visitor to think about “Well, why would we want to tell that story?” And—and this is where popular culture comes in—that the most popular form of popular entertainment in the aftermath of Little Bighorn was the Wild West Show and that was true both in the United States and all over Europe. And all of these Wild West Shows, the climax of the whole presentation was the Battle of Little Bighorn where Buffalo Bill would fall nobly—he was Custer of course, depicting Custer—would fall nobly fighting the savage Sioux. So that's where people got their information about this. And in a sense, then the Plains Indians sort of became the national mascot. So, if you look at all of these depictions of Indians on television, on—in movies and above all on products, you see almost without fail they’re Plains Indians even though there were relatively few Plains Indians compared to the entirety of Native America. And they only existed in that form for, you know, at most, 200 years. Whereas Native civilization had been here for 14,000 years. But that was the one everybody latched onto. So, if you go to a high school that's called the Indians or the Braves or the whatever's you're going to see a Plains Indian logo. And that, you know, we’re—we’re trying to point out that's weird. That's just weird.

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Jo Reed: What about contemporary Native arts? Is there a place for that in the museum, and how does that fit into the larger stories that you’re telling?

Kevin Gover: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, I think, most of our exhibitions are actually of contemporary Native art. We do history, and our museum here in Washington right now has three history exhibitions, but that's unusual. It's more likely that we'll have a couple of art exhibitions and in New York the same thing. We always have a contemporary art exhibition in New York. We always will. Once again, we’ll never run out of material because there's all this brilliant work being created by Native American artists in the modern era and in our contemporary times. And so, we’ve—we’ve really only scratched the surface of that.

Jo Reed: The oral tradition which is so important to Native peoples and—and stories, and that sharing of stories, not only origin myths but stories to learn and live by—how do you find a home for that in a museum?

Kevin Gover: It's not that hard, really. First of all, when dealing with oral history it's ideal if you could let them tell the story themselves. And so, you know, thank goodness for video and—and audio that allows them to just speak in their own words and their own voices about what their history is. But probably more importantly, oral history sort of got a bad reputation in the scholarly world. And so, a lot of—a lot of scholars sort of looked down their nose at the idea that information can be transferred over the generations just orally. That has two effects. One it—it really does diminish the importance of—of oral history because they can be tremendously accurate even after many generations of being passed along. But, second, it over-credits the written word because it's just as easy to lie in writing, perhaps even more so, than it is to lie orally. And so, a lot of the material that they chose to rely on was, in fact, just false. It brings to mind stories about our collections. A lot of our information about our collections is just wrong to document precisely what it was they thought they had. But it's not unusual, at all, for us to bring a tribal delegation in to our collections and they'll read a catalog card and say, "Well, that's not what that is." And so, we get the opportunity then to correct our information on our own collections. And I’m sure the people who—who collected it in the first instant were careful, but just because it’s written down, doesn’t mean it’s smarter than information that is transferred orally.

Jo Reed: I would think sacred objects pose a challenge as well because you want to be able to show them to people but they demand a certain amount of respect.

Kevin Gover: Well, we don't find it particularly difficult to sort out the presentation of sacred objects, or more often, the non-presentation because if we have an inkling that an object is of particular spiritual significance to an Indian Nation we will check with them and ask, “Can we put it on display? Will you help us interpret it?” and most of the time that works. And I will also say, they say, "No." And we just have to live with that, but we have to give them primacy in determining how and what is shown when it comes to spiritual matters.

Jo Reed: Do they sometimes say, I would imagine they would, "Actually, we would like that back.”

Kevin Gover: Yeah, often—often. And we’re obligated, under the statute Congress passed to create this museum, to return human remains, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony on the request of a tribe or the descendent who owned that material. That's fine. My predecessor, Rick West, once said, when they were first considering this law requiring repatriation, we call it, there was a great gnashing of teeth all over the museum world going, “Oh my God, the Indians are going to back the U-Haul up to our collections facility and take all of our stuff.” So a few years in, after the museum was established, Rick was talking about the process of repatriation and noted that the museum had repatriated over 2000 items to different Indian Nations. And he says, “So, we'll just have to get by with 798,000 items.” And so, we're not really concerned about the impact that repatriation has on the scope and breadth of our collection.

Jo Reed: And I wonder, because of the place of the museum and the fact that there are 568 nations in the United States, in a way, have you become sort of a central location, a central place where Native Americans from all around the country can find a spot?

Kevin Gover: That's certainly what we’d like to be. And I think to—to a great many tribes that—that is the role we play. There are a couple of problems with that. One is that it requires a tribe to have some considerable resources just to come to Washington and to be able to spend time working in these collections. A great many of them can't afford it and will never actually visit Washington. We’re sure that most Native Americans will not visit—visit our museum, so we have to find a way to come to them. Thankfully, technology can go a long way in dealing with that problem. But, yeah, we are a center. We also are a symbol. I mean, here we are a few hundred feet from—from the capital, and a very visible symbol of the ongoing Native American presence in the United States, and the tribes are happy for that and they support us in our efforts. There are other institutions, as well, though, that have treasure troves of material that once belonged to the tribes. And so, we work with those museums and with the tribes to find a—a way for tribes to have access to—to that material. And to their credit, you know, most of the largest collections across the country are anxious to work with tribes and with cultural leaders too, because they understand that they can better understand their own collections through that kind of collaboration.

Jo Reed: Is there an exhibit that you’ve had here, ongoing or permanent, that have—has moved you very, very deeply?

Kevin Gover: Sure, and in different ways, you know. I mean, just—just recently or over the past five years, I think our—our exhibition called Nation to Nation can be quite moving. It's about the treaties between the United States and the Indian Nations. And we put a lot of effort into that and trying to boil just a huge epic story down to just a few examples of this Nation to Nation relationship and we got a good response. And there are a couple of moments in that exhibition where you just—if you're not crying you're not human, and we wanted some of that. But we also didn't want the visitor to leave thinking the Indians were broken. Quite the contrary. We showed that—that they came back and that they never gave up and they continue to assert those treaties, and that as a result of their own determination, they're doing better now than they have since the founding of the United States.

Jo Reed: And for visitors who are coming to the museum either in New York or here in Washington DC what suggestions do you have for them as they walk through that door?

Kevin Gover: I—I think the most important thing is to leave your assumptions outside and just try to be open to whatever it is you may encounter. Some of it will be familiar. I mean, everybody knows a little something about Indians. But, most of it will not. And so, we need our visitors to really be receptive to a different understanding than they've had up to now about American Indians, past and present. That's a very difficult thing to do. I mean, we all treasure, you know, our—our thoughts and our—our beliefs and our—our knowledge. And it—it’s a tough thing. We think that the subject is one of those that just sort of pricks the American conscience and they know that something really bad happened or lots of really bad things happened. And we just want people to know that it is not our purpose to make anyone feel guilty. None—none of us that are around today had anything to do with that stuff. We can only move forward. But if you really want to know how Indian country is doing right now, come visit our museum. And if you intend good things for Indian Nations we can teach you some things that will help you pursue that instinct.

Jo Reed: That's a great place to leave it. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Kevin Gover: You're welcome. You're welcome.

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That was Kevin Gover. He’s the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. As you heard, there are two branches of the National Museum of the American Indian. The one in DC is on the National Mall at Fourth Street & Independence Avenue, SW. It’s open every day, except Christmas, from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm. And the one in New York is located in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House at One Bowling Green. It’s also open every day from 10:00-5:00pm –and until 8:00pm on Thursdays. Both museums are free. So, if you are in New York or DC, check them out. You can find out more about the museums and what you’re likely to see there at americanindian.si.edu.

You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts, so please do, and then leave us a rating on Apple because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) Director Kevin Gover (Pawnee) has been leading the only national museum devoted exclusively to Native peoples since 2007. Established by an act of Congress in 1989, NMAI consists of a museum in New York City, a conservation facility in Maryland, and a stunning five-story, 250,000-square-foot golden-colored building with sweeping curving walls and indigenous landscaping on the National Mall. With Native Americans taking the lead in both its design and organization, the museum is home to more than 800,000 Native artifacts from throughout the Western Hemisphere, an archive of more than 125,000 photographs, and a vibrant collection of contemporary native art. It also offers a range of exhibitions, film and video screenings, school group programs, public programs, and living culture presentations throughout the year. In this podcast episode, Gover talks about the mission of the museum, which is to celebrate the art, culture, and history of Native peoples as vital and sustaining while unraveling the myths that have been engendered about Native peoples through popular culture. Given the museum’s mandate to represent not just the 573 Indian nations in the United States but all the Native peoples in the Western Hemisphere--from the Arctic Circle straight down to South America, Gover has a daunting challenge. He meets it with extraordinary equanimity, insight, and a commitment to collaborative creativity. Here’s a look at a museum like no other through the eyes of the man who guides it.