Kevin Gover: Briefcase Warrior

by Steve Russell

Copyright, 2000. This article originally appeared in the Native American Village of

Kevin Gover is an Indian lawyer, a briefcase warrior. With that status comes responsibility and conflict. The responsibility is to protect Indian people and what little property they have left. The conflicts are many.

I work in South Texas, where the public interest often collides with personal loyalties and the patron system flourishes along side modern attempts to achieve meritocracy.

Indians simply have more loyalties among which to be divided. There are personal loyalties, clan loyalties, tribal loyalties--all forged in the fire of generations of combat only become relatively nonviolent in this century.

All Indians understand our need for briefcase warriors, but some believe that it is simply wrong for us to work for the U.S. government. Consorting with the enemy, as it were.

I disagree. The idea that Indians should not be government lawyers flows from a recognition that historically the U.S. government has been enemy to most Indian nations. However, the trust responsibility that the government professes toward Indian nations, the very responsibility that allegedly gives Congress the power to abrogate treaties and treat Indians differently than it can treat other ethnic groups, means one thing if it means anything: the long term interests of Indian nations cannot be in conflict with the interests of the U.S. government. Therefore, an Indian lawyer who serves the U.S. government simply implements the government's obligations toward Indians.

That is the theory. I suspect that Kevin Gover, during his tenure with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, has fallen into some of the gaps between theory and practice. Gover is leaving federal service, and I for one am very curious how much vetting his remarks of September 8 received in higher levels of government. It is clear that Gover spoke from the heart. I can barely read the speech myself without a surge of emotion.

He spoke of The Trail Where They Cried, a part of my family history. He spoke of the massacres at Sand Creek and the Washita. He misspoke that the bison herds were "decimated." The yonega did not take one in ten bison, they virtually exterminated the species and left the meat to rot on the Plains!

I am glad to see an Indian in charge of the BIA, and I am glad to hear these belated words: "I stand before you as the leader of an institution that in the past has committed acts so terrible that they infect, diminish, and destroy the lives of Indian people decades later, generations later. These things occurred despite the efforts of many good people with good hearts who sought to prevent them. These wrongs must be acknowledged if the healing is to begin."

This is truth, but partial truth. These wrongs must be acknowledged but they also must stop. The U.S. government must quit plundering our resources and returning toxic wastes to our reservations. The U.S. government must protect our sacred places as if they were white people's sacred places. The U.S. government must make the criminal justice system work as efficiently for Indian victims as it works on Indian perpetrators. The U.S. government, if it cannot guarantee higher education to all children, should at least undertake to guarantee it to those few Indians who manage to qualify themselves for it.

Gover is correct that is necessary to acknowledge wrongs but it is also necessary to begin doing right.

The U.S. government apologized to Japanese-Americans for locking them up in concentration camps during World War II, but by the time compensation was offered most of the victims had passed on.

The U.S. government apologized to Native Hawaiians in 1993 for the theft of their land, but just this year the Supreme Court refused to find that the government owes Native Hawaiians the same duty it claims to owe Indians.

These incomplete amends to Japanese-Americans and Native Hawaiians bring up the greatest difficulty with Gover's speech: "I do not speak today for the United States. That is the province of the nation's elected leaders..."

Kevin Gover is an Indian lawyer, a briefcase warrior. I respect the path he has taken even if it differs from the choice of his Pawnee colleague, Walter Echo-Hawk of the Native American Rights Fund, and it differs from mine. I believe that good will toward Indian people is in Kevin Gover's heart. He might even be right when he makes that claim for BIA employees generally.

I just wish the same good will could be found in the heart and therefore the policies of the United States.

Steve Russell is currently Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, The University of Texas at San Antonio and sits as a visiting judge after retiring from a 17 year career on the Bench. He has spoken and published extensively about law and Indian rights. Steve is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a past President of the Texas Indian Bar Association.