Gover addresses 'White Man's Indian' in Canby lecture
Indians, since their first encounter with Europeans, have always been more defined by others than by themselves, according to Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, who will deliver the Third Annual William C. Canby Jr. lecture, "Will the White Man's Indian Ever Die?" at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at ASU.
"It is the human inclination to dominate that is so troublesome," Gover said. "And defining another, well, I can't imagine a more complete domination, at least psychologically."
The lecture, presented by the College of Law's Indian Legal Program, is named in honor of Judge William C. Canby Jr. of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and a founding faculty member. It will start at 4:30 p.m., Jan. 28, in the Great Hall of Armstrong Hall on ASU's Tempe campus.
The talk is the keynote for the conference, "Repatriation at 20: A Gathering on Native Self-Determination and Human Rights," which will continue at the College from 8:30 to 5 p.m., Jan. 29.
"Kevin Gover has for many years been a distinguished faculty member in our Indian Legal Program at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, and though he is currently on leave running the most visible museum and cultural center on Indian tribes in the country, we are thrilled to welcome him back for what promises to be a provocative and fascinating lecture on how collective identities are created and perpetuated in a world of power disparities among peoples," said Dean Paul Schiff Berman.
Gover said that when Indians aren't excluded from American history, they are considered as an afterthought.
"Indians are too often represented as uncivilized, and that it is either inevitable or necessary that they be removed from the path of progress," Gover said. "The vast majority of the public has been taught that the Americas were an uncivilized wilderness in 1492. But the Americas were fully occupied in 1492. There were probably as many people here as in Europe in 1492."
Gover said that Indians are damaged by allowing others to define them, which continues to this day.
"It puts us in a box," Gover said. "I'm stunned by the number of people who are angry when they come to the museum and see it is about Indians who are still here, rather than Indians who used to be. They think modern Indians aren't real Indians because we're not like we were when Columbus set foot here."
Gover uses artists as an example.
"Any Native artist using modern media for their work is criticized," Gover said. "People say, 'That's not Indian art.' Even though it's an Indian making a statement about Indians. The media the artist chooses to use becomes disqualifying. It's crazy, and it's insulting.
"It's like saying it isn't legitimate unless it is the same way you were doing things in 1492," he said. "They wouldn't ask it of anyone else. They wouldn't say, 'You can't be a White man unless you're wearing knickers and tails. It's unique to Indians."
Being defined by others extends to sports mascots, where Indians are "honored" for their bravery.
"Why don't they honor us for being smart, creative, for all kinds of different things?" Gover asks. "Why choose the one? It tells us that you're stereotyping. You can't be Indian unless you're brave, whatever that means. It's ridiculous. It's just a tiny part of what Indians were and are."
Redefining even extends to the repatriation of items from museums.
"When any institution considers a repatriation request, they have to investigate to see if the object is what the Indian says it is," Gover said. "Where are they going to look? The most authoritative place is the tribe itself, but instead, museums consistently look at 19th and early-20th century written ethnography, and if it conflicts, they prefer it over the contemporary Indian information."
The problem is that the early ethnography was written by white, misguided scholars, he said.
"Many of them were very earnest scholars, but they brought the baggage of 19th-century race science, which set out to prove that all other races are inferior to the white race, and that all models of civilization started with tribes and ended up in the modern European state, which was the ultimate end of the evolutionary process."
Gover said the overall situation is getting better, but the stereotyping and bigotry have to be confronted every time it is seen. He pointed to the criticism leveled recently at Republic National Committee Chairman Michael Steele after he used the phrase "honest injun" in an interview on Fox News.
"In the great scheme of things, you might think, 'So what?'" Gover said. "But if we let that go by without challenging it, that white noise we get exposed to gets louder and louder. We need to say, 'I don't think you're a racist, but what you said is offensive and you shouldn't say it anymore.' "
Gover said tribes also have to start telling their own stories.
"It is powerful to see how tribes, in their own museums, are interpreting their own stories," he said. "Things are better, but it will be the work of generations to cleanse our minds of what we have been taught over the course of our lives. I won't live to see it."
Judy Nichols, Judith.Nichols@asu.edu
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law