Suzan Shown Harjo: On Rick West, Kevin Gover and NMAI

Much has been written lately about the National Museum of the American Indian and its transitioning directors, some of it even true. Indian Country Today and The Washington Post have traded stories like children passing a secret and getting farther from the true statement with each whisper.

WashPost reporters and ICT anonymous writers worked themselves into quite a state over the selection of Kevin Gover to replace W. Richard West, and into an absolute lather about West’s NMAI travel.

ICT praised West and Gover, until Gover was selected as NMAI director. Then, anonymous writers claimed he got the job because of cronyism with West. Gover and West are two top Native legal scholars and former law partners. By what crazy standard is it wrong for them to be friends and colleagues?

West had promoted the NMAI insider candidate, who had moved from ICT with hopes of inheriting the director position. However, the Smithsonian’s search committee did not advance him as a finalist, and anonymous writers in ICT opened fire on Gover and West.

By contrast, the Confederated Umatilla Journal (Oct. 2007) announced that Roberta Conner, the director of the tribal cultural center, Tamastslikt, was the NMAI director runner-up, who “enjoyed the entire process” and “met interesting, capable professionals from varied branches of the Smithsonian and from Indian Country.” Both she and her newspaper showed Native grace and heart.

The ICT/WashPost stories were perceptibly generated by the same vengeful impulse behind the extra-legal leaking and posting of NMAI travel documents with West’s private identification numbers. Only the interest of trolling identity thieves could possibly have been served by this.

These leakers weren’t doing anything admirable. A genuine whistleblower who thought something was wrong would have sounded an alarm when something could have been done to stop the perceived wrongdoing. Instead, these wags waited until West had left the building and splashed mud on his legacy, just as their tantrum had spoiled a gracious welcome for Gover.

The WashPost editorialized that there “were no laws broken here and no attempts at deception.” Then what, pray tell, is the point? West has been vilified for living within the law and not deceiving, while the leakers are getting away with both illegalities and deceptions.

Washington is filled with bureaucrats bent on revenge. Wars at NMAI are fought over raises and promotions, with demands of retention bonuses, full-time salaries for part-time work and extra leave for pouting and whining. Gover will have his hands full, dealing with those on the payroll, Indian and non-Indian, who bully, intimidate and otherwise fit the classic federal Indian agent profile.

The NMAI leakers told a WashPost reporter that I would say good things about West because NMAI is contracting for my guest curatorial services for its upcoming treaties exhibit. I proposed the exhibit to NMAI in 2003 and conducted two planning projects with my former co-curator and leading treaties authority, the late Vine Deloria, Jr. Ironically, the West-haters told me that West never wanted the exhibit, but they tell an opposite story of convenience to the WashPost. I speak well of West because I respect him and he’s my friend.

In the interest of full disclosure: I love NMAI and was one of its proud parents, as part of the coalition in 1967 that started the national movement for repatriation laws, museum reform and the NMAI. I was a negotiator and writer of the NMAI and repatriation laws, and a trustee of both the NMAI and its predecessor museum. And I was a member of the Smithsonian committee and NMAI board that selected West unanimously as NMAI’s founding director.

We had a mighty vision and chose the right person for the job. What a job he has done! No one – not disappointed director candidates or anonymous critics – can take that away from him.

And Gover is the right person for this time to continue to realize our dreams and to let his own vision lead us into the future.

NMAI and ICT have many wonderful people who uphold the highest principles of these fine institutions. I am not casting aspersions on them, but on the few self-servers who would compromise the good names of NMAI and ICT in order to achieve their small personal goals.

The WashPost was simply had. But in the midst of its ledger book reporting, its Dec. 28 article and Jan. 7 editorial contained some surprisingly uninformed and stereotypical statements: “West’s travel often took him far from American Indian culture” and “Much of his travel – to Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice, Vienna, Sydney, Seville, Athens, New Zealand and other swank destinations whose enthrallment with Native American culture had until now gone unremarked….”

There was a time when American Indian people were confined to reservations, but that practice ended in the mid-1930s. Since then, we’ve traveled to Kansas City and Santa Fe and all sorts of sophisticated places. Actually, Indians have been traveling to Europe since Cristobal Colon took prisoners in chains back with him, and shiploads of our art and jewelry from our ancestors’ homes, bodies and graves are in museums and private collections worldwide.

I tried to inform one of the WashPost reporters about today’s global trafficking in Native human remains and sacred objects, and the educational work about repatriation that West undertook in many of these museums and countries. The reporter rudely challenged me to name such museums in Europe, saying, “I bet you can’t name one.” The Branly, Louvre, Vatican, British Museum – look in Portugal, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands – throw a dart at a map of Germany and you’ll hit a collection with our stuff. He was so not interested.

As I was writing this column, I received a note from an ICT editor, kindly forwarding a polite email message from a man in Lyon, France: “I am interested in the history of Indian people during the 19th century, and particularly with the history of Chief Bull Bear. By browsing on the Net, I discovered that Mrs. Suzan Shown Harjo is his great grand daughter. Therefore, I would be glad to have a correspondence with this person.”

It was a timely reminder that people outside our borders are interested in Native peoples and are quite adept at using readily available technology to find us. But this doesn’t mean that we must wait to be contacted individually before we reach across boundaries, inside and outside the U.S.

Over 40 years ago, we envisioned a national museum that would respect Native peoples; help to rewrite the history that has been written wrongly about us; inform people here and in other places who we are today; and help us venture out of our own countries and learn about other peoples.

We put West on the road to build an NMAI that would do this. And he did just that.

I hope no newspaper or museum expects us to ask permission to travel away from home or to stand by our friends.

Suzan Shown Harjo is Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee and an award-winning columnist.

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