Commitment to Indian country resolute

Liz Hill
3/29/00

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A few words immediately spring to mind after talking with Kevin Gover. Integrity is one. Resolve is another, evident from the studied intensity of his every word.

On a recent late winter morning, surrounded by the American Indian art that fills his office at the U.S. Department of the Interior, Gover spoke of his life and work, particularly his position as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.

It is a job he says, smiling, he assumes he will leave Jan. 20, 2001, regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican president takes office.

It is remarkable that in the world of Indian affairs in Washington, D.C., which can frustrating, challenging and even cutthroat, Gover, quiet and dignified, remains above the fray. His commitment and passion for Indian country issues and, most importantly for Indian people, apparently is stronger than ever. The BIA, a battered and brutalized government institution for much of its life, experienced a renaissance of sorts under Govers direction.

It happened despite the ever-looming specter of the Indian trust funds problem, a problem of massive proportions and implications Gover inherited. Resolution remains his top priority.

Gover speaks confidently, with pride, of what he has been able to accomplish. A victory not widely reported is administrative reorganization, a vital piece of the funding puzzle carefully scrutinized as Congress decides whether to grant appropriations to Indian programs. If the administrative structure is in disarray, how will Congress trust that money will be well spent, Gover asks.

Were Indian people and we tend to care more about delivering services rather than administrative capabilities, but in the long run you pay a price for that.

Gover was instrumental in raising the credibility of the BIA with Congress, pushing tenaciously for increases in a budget which remains well below the healthy level he says is absolutely critical to making a significant impact in Indian communities.

Still, he is proud that if the BIA receives its request, by the time he leaves office, the budget will have increased by almost a third. An impressive victory, he cautions, but its not even near what we need to make a difference out there.

Kevin has a very tough job. he must carry out the federal Indian policies which are deficient in so many respects, says John Echohawk, long-time colleague and friend who is executive director of the Native American Rights Fund. More people need to understand that more blame lies in Congress and not with the assistant secretary or the BIA.

Many of our issues can be traced back to the lack of funding, Echohawk adds. We are still at the bottom of the barrel. You name it, were last.

Thats what the assistant secretary and others have to deal with, a very poorly funded Indian policy overall.

This is despite the fact Indian country has some good friends in Congress and a more aggressive lobbying presence in the midst of what Echohawk calls a very difficult environment.

It is clear, talking with Gover, that he is guided by an inner strength that keeps him grounded. Comanche and Pawnee on his fathers side, he grew up as the son of parents involved in the Civil Rights Movement in Oklahoma in the 1960s, raised to deeply appreciate the Martin Luther King- and Robert Kennedy-brand of politics and liberalism caring about poor and minority people.

Remarkably, from an early age, Gover knew he wanted to be a lawyer. I admired how smart they were and how they presented themselves.

Gover left Oklahoma for preparatory school in New Hampshire, then on to Princeton where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in public and International affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School of Government. He earned a juris doctor from the University of New Mexico School of Law and has, over the years, become highly respected as one of the top Indian lawyers in the country.

Kevin can listen from the truth better than most, and without the need to defend ... he learns from the facts instead of fighting them, says Cate Stetson, an attorney in Albuquerque, N.M., and long-time friend and colleague. His ego is way small compared to his brain size ... a rarity in lawyers. He is slow to anger or to insult; all this makes him easy to respect.

It is well known that Gover battled his own personal demons throughout the years, particularly with alcohol. He is most passionate when speaking about the devastating problems of alcoholism and substance abuse in Indian communities, particularly among young people.

Sometimes, though, it seems like you're preaching to the choir, Gover sighs, noting a vast amount of unsolicited mail from people all over the country who hear him speak to this issue. This is the issue that people light on; still, a lot of them are in recovery themselves.

This is great, but we need to get to the people who are not in recovery.

Speaking philosophically, Gover refers to the problems of alcoholism, substance abuse, domestic abuse and violence against women as characteristics of a social system that is broken down within communities, the product of what I have come to refer to as the survival culture.

Its easy to understand where this survival culture emerged. In fact, it was probably necessary that survival culture emerged at the turn of the 20th century, because that was the order of the day for Indian people - to survive.

But, he adds, this culture has so many characteristics that are terribly destructive; the most prominent is fear. So much of what goes on in Indian communities now derives out of the communities and individuals fear rather than their aspirations, hope, humor or joy.

Gover said Indian country must overcome this on a personal basis, on a community basis and on a tribal basis. We've got to really understand what this survival mentality has done to us and abandon it, because were past it now. We have survived and so now we have to move on.

By all accounts, Gover should appear more exhausted. The weight of Indian county has been heavy. Still, his smile remains bright as he talks gardening and reading. Then theres his personal life. He and his wife, Anne Marie, were married Jan. 1, and he has two children, a son, 17, and a daughter, 14.

Asked about future plans, he says simply, Well, I do have a family to take care of.

He admits he has beaten the odds in having both his job with all of its difficulties and frustrations that are attendant to it and (being able to) develop a real loving and committed relationship.

I've been very fortunate in my time here.

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