On Kevin Gover's Speech
by Rick McBride

On September 8, Kevin Gover, Assistant Secretary - Indian Affairs, Department of the
Interior, delivered a speech in a ceremony marking the 175th anniversary of the Bureau of
Indian Affairs (BIA) that was nothing short of astonishing. I cannot comment on his
remarks from the perspective of being Native American, though I am 1/8 Cherokee. My
opinion, and it is just that, is as a homogenized citizen, but one deeply concerned about
the condition of my government: What I see it has done to others, I know it can do to me.
Mr. Gover, a Pawnee from Lawton, Oklahoma, was remarkably candid as he recounted
some of the misdeeds of the Agency since its beginning in 1824: "...the works of this
agency have at various times profoundly harmed the communities it was meant to serve.
From the very beginning, the Office of Indian Affairs was an instrument by which the
United States enforced its ambition against the Indian nations and Indian people who
stood in its path."
Openly admitting "...this agency participated in the ethnic cleansing..." through "threat,
deceit, and force," he further acknowledged "...this agency set out to destroy all things
Indian." He refused to gloss over the atrocities, citing some of the more egregious and
better known policies of the U.S. government, which ranged from annihilation to
"This agency forbade the speaking of Indian languages, prohibited conduct of traditional
religious activities, outlawed traditional government, and made Indian people ashamed of
who they were. Worst of all, The Bureau of Indian Affairs committed these acts against
the children entrusted to its boarding school, brutalizing them emotionally,
psychologically, physically, and spiritually.... The trauma of shame, fear, and anger has
passed from one generation to the next, and manifests itself in the rampant alcoholism,
drug abuse, and domestic violence that plague Indian country.... So many of the maladies
suffered today in Indian country result from the failures of this agency. Poverty, ignorance,
and disease have been the product of this agency's work."
Powerful words, especially from a politically vulnerable bureaucrat. Nevertheless, Mr.
Gover took great pains to make it clear the apology was on behalf of the BIA for its
actions only and did not in any way speak for the rest of the government. In fact, his
speech was reviewed by the Clinton Administration prior to it delivery.
So, I have to wonder, has anything really changed? The BIA is just another bureaucracy
carrying out the will of the larger government, which is carrying out the will of the
economically and (therefore) politically powerful few. That is, the BIA did/does not act
alone. What about Congress and the various Christian churches; some of the biggest
violators of Indian human rights? Certainly, the Executive and Judicial branches of the
government played a part, too. But the biggest player, then and today, is us; the apathetic
American public.
I applaud Mr. Gover's address to the Indian People. But I can't help but think about what
still goes on today; the relocation, religious freedoms and land use problems at Big
Mountain, the so-called "quiet abrogation" of Indian treaties, the competing and
interfering interests of government land use and water rights, legal wranglings over
skeletal remains (estimates of private collections run as high as 600,000 - the Smithsonian
alone has 14,000 Indian remains), and the mysterious disappearance of some six billion
(yes, that's a six with nine zeros) dollars of Indian moneys held in "trust" by the feds.
As recently as last year, Interior chief Bruce Babbitt, Mr. Gover's boss, was cited for
contempt in federal court for failure (ostensible refusal) to produce documents regarding
just what drawer all that money might have been inadvertently stuffed into.
But then, I can get pretty cynical when it comes to the federal government. Though I was
astonished when I read Mr. Gover's speech, I have to wonder why the idea wasn't taken
up by the Clinton Administration, indicating a true change of heart and direction for the
entire government and its mind boggling number of agencies, departments, and bureaus.
Has Mr. Gover signaled a real change or will prevailing attitudes reduce his words to
"just more of the same.

(c) 2000 by Rick McBride. All rights reserved.

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