Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Australia to Apologize to Aborigines - New York Times

Published: January 31, 2008

SYDNEY, Australia — The new Australian government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will apologize for past mistreatment of the country’s Aboriginal minority when Parliament convenes next month, addressing an issue that has blighted race relations in Australia for years.

In a measure of the importance Mr. Rudd attaches to the issue, the apology will be the first item of business for the new government when Parliament first convenes on Feb. 13, Jenny Macklin, the federal minister for indigenous affairs, said Wednesday.

Ms. Macklin said she had consulted widely with Aboriginal leaders, but it was still not clear what form the apology would take. However, she said the government would not bow to longstanding demands for a fund to compensate those damaged by the policies of past governments.

The history of relations between Australia’s Aboriginal population and the broader population is one of brutality and neglect. Tens of thousands of Aboriginals died from disease, warfare and dispossession in the years after European settlement, and it was not until 1962 that they were able to vote in national elections.

But the most lasting damage was done by the policy of removing Aboriginal children and placing them either with white families or in state institutions as part of a drive to assimilate them with the white population.

A comprehensive 1997 report estimates that between one in three and one in 10 Aboriginal children, the so-called stolen generations, were taken from their homes and families in the century until the policy was formally abandoned in 1969.

“A national apology to the stolen generations and their families is a first, necessary step to move forward from the past,” Ms. Macklin said.

“The apology will be made on behalf of the Australian government and does not attribute guilt to the current generation of Australian people,” she said.

Marcia Langton, professor of Australian indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne, said the apology was a good first step, but she added that it was hard to see where the government’s program would go from there.

“There can’t be any next step without a compensation fund,” Ms. Langton, who is also one of Australia’s most prominent Aboriginal advocates, said Wednesday.

She said she suspected that the apology was aimed more at pleasing the core voter base of Mr. Rudd’s Labor Party than Aboriginal people themselves.

“It’s difficult not to be cynical,” said Ms. Langton.

The previous government of Prime Minister John Howard, which was convincingly beaten in elections last November, had refused to apologize to the Aboriginal community for past wrongs.

“There are millions of Australians who will never entertain an apology because they don’t believe that there is anything to apologize for,” Mr. Howard told a local radio station last year.

“They are sorry for past mistreatment but that is different from assuming responsibility for it,” he said.

Many of Mr. Howard’s critics believed that he was unwilling to apologize because it would open the flood gates to potentially massive claims for compensation.

Ms. Langton estimated that some 13,000 members of the stolen generations still survive.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up some 2.5 percent of the overall population, but many eke out an existence on the margins of society.

Life expectancy for Aboriginal people is 17 years lower than the rest of the country; they are 13 times more likely to be incarcerated; three times more likely to be unemployed; and twice as likely to be victims of violence or threatened violence.

Successive governments have been wary of intervening in Aboriginal affairs, and many blame policies implemented in the 1970s as part of a drive to empower indigenous Australians for further marginalizing them.

The permit system, which bars outsiders from visiting Aboriginal communities without the permission of community leaders, has come in for particular criticism. It was designed to preserve indigenous culture, but critics say it has created ghettos and is partially responsible for an environment in many communities where alcoholism, violence and child abuse have become endemic.

A report issued by the government of the Northern Territory last year uncovered widespread evidence of child neglect and sexual abuse. The report triggered a wide-ranging and controversial intervention by the Howard government in the territory, which included removing the permit system from the Northern Territory and mandating that half of welfare payments could only be spent on food.

The Rudd government has committed itself to reviewing the intervention, but it has yet to come up with a comprehensive plan. Many indigenous Australians are distrustful of government interference in their lives, and although the plan for an apology has been broadly welcomed as an important symbolic step, designing acceptable practical measures will be more difficult.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Kevin Gover - National Museum of the American Indian - Smithsonian

WASHINGTON — It was not exactly a welcome mat that greeted the new museum director. When Kevin Gover left his quiet life teaching American Indian law among the cactuses of Arizona to lead the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian here, he arrived during a storm of publicity about spending by his predecessor, W. Richard West Jr.

But in his first in-depth interview since settling into his new office, Mr. Gover, 52, seemed unconcerned about the scrutiny he might now encounter about his own spending habits, or about the long-term effects on the museum.

“This isn’t my first rodeo,” he said last week. “I took a few poundings in the past.”

Spending by Mr. West, the institution’s founding director, who retired last month after 17 years, has provoked two senators to call for independent investigations. Mr. West spent more than $250,000 on travel and hotels during his final four years in office and paid $48,500 to a New York artist to paint his museum portrait.

“I felt bad for Rick,” said Mr. Gover, who practiced in two of the same law firms as Mr. West. “I felt that it was unfair.”

The Smithsonian said in December that all of Mr. West’s travel had been approved and that he had raised $51 million in that period. In a Jan. 11 letter to Indian Country Today, a weekly newspaper, Mr. West disputed reports first published in The Washington Post, calling them mischaracterizations of travel that was within the scope of his duties. "I traveled as required by the job I had to do," he wrote.

Referring to Mr. West’s trips in Europe and Asia, Mr. Gover said: “I understand the visceral reaction some people have to what looks like living the life of Riley. But the fact is, the museum has to be present in those places. This is the museum world. This is how it’s done.”

But Mr. Gover, a member of the Pawnee tribe of Oklahoma, described himself as a conservative person and less of a public figure. He said that he expected to conduct a more low-key operation at the museum.

“We took a little hit on our image,” he conceded. “I worry about that in connection with the tribes. But in a very few months I think very few people will remember this.”

Most recently a professor of Indian law at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, Mr. Gover is no stranger to the rough and tumble of this political town. He spent three years as the assistant secretary for Indian affairs at the federal Interior Department, overseeing the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

That agency is responsible for the federal government’s relations with Indian tribes, and Mr. Gover said he was regularly pummeled over issues like tribal recognition, land trusts and casino ownership. Though at times constrained by a lack of funds or authority, he said, more often he needed to negotiate between two reasonable but opposing views.

“This being Washington, disappointment often turns into cynicism and accusations about the motives of the decision maker,” he said in a follow-up e-mail message.

Mr. Gover — his Pawnee name is Shield Chief — remains connected to his background, which includes Comanche ancestors. In anticipation of a nephew’s return from fighting in Afghanistan, for example, he is helping his family determine “how they welcome back a warrior,” he said.

“There is a lot of well-developed protocol around who cooks, who serves, where we sit, how the drum is handled, how the food is handled,” he said. “So much of this ritual survives. Only a few things are part of our daily lives. But the ceremonial life is very rich. I call it knowing your manners.”

At the Smithsonian Mr. Gover (rhymes with clover) also oversees the Indian Museum’s George Gustav Heye Center in Manhattan and the American Indian Cultural Resources Center in Maryland.

Indians should feel that the museum belongs to them, Mr. Gover said. He wants the collection not only to reflect their history and culture, he said, but also to develop into a hub of Indian scholarship.

“I would love for this to be a place where the very best scholars on native issues wanted to work,” Mr. Gover said. “We’re not there yet. We’re not anywhere close to that. But I think we can get there.”

When the museum’s building here opened in 2004 — the institution was founded in 1989 — Edward Rothstein in The New York Times criticized its “studious avoidance of scholarship.”

Mr. Gover suggested that the exhibitions could be more topical, more daring and interactive. He plans to visit tribes around the country and ask what they want to see in the museum, he said, and hopes to expand the contemporary art collection.

“It’s time for this museum to renew and strengthen its relationship with its primary constituents, which are the Indian tribes in this country,” he said.

The museum has institutionalized this kind of input with its system of “community curators,” Indians who help shape exhibitions. Recently, for example, the Blackfeet Nation of Browning, Mont., and the Chiricahua Apache of Mescalero, N.M., added their stories and artifacts to a continuing exhibition called “Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories.”

Mr. Gover also sees Indians as potential donors. “Tribes have begun to have resources they never had before — disposable income,” he said, referring partly to casinos. “I would like to see if it’s possible to get the Indian community to adopt this museum.”

The museum’s annual operating budget is $40 million, with $32 million provided by the federal government. But last year the Smithsonian’s secretary, Lawrence M. Small, resigned after revelations about his extravagant personal spending, and Congress has recently pressured the Smithsonian and its museums to raise more of their own funds.

Mr. Gover says that he will have to do his share.

“It’s not my favorite thing, but I’m comfortable with it, and it has to be done,” he said. “I think we have a fabulous case to make to the philanthropic world.”

The Smithsonian has asked the Museum of the American Indian to increase its endowment to $100 million — from the current $18 million — by 2018. Because its building on the Washington Mall opened only three years ago, it does not yet face the repair needs that plague other Smithsonian buildings.

A tall man with a regal bearing, Mr. Gover grew up in Oklahoma, received his bachelor’s degree from Princeton University in public and international affairs and earned his law degree from the University of New Mexico. After practicing law for 15 years in Washington and Albuquerque, Mr. Gover joined the faculty at Arizona State University in 2003.

“I thought I had found my place,” he said, “that I was going to ride it out until I retired.”

If the next stage of his professional life promises to be less tranquil, Mr. Gover said he was energized by the tasks ahead and unperturbed by the museum’s recent controversies.

“I’m glad that I can play a role in navigating these difficulties,” he said. “I have no concern for the future of the Smithsonian. I never make apologies for things I didn’t do.”

Saturday, January 12, 2008

In an Ancient Culture, a Team Takes Root

ACOMA PUEBLO, N.M. — To the north, the Sky City casino draws truckers off Interstate 40 with its billboard advertisements promising loose slots and low limits.

To the south, the towering sandstone mesa attracts tourists to a reservation without electricity or running water, with houses made from adobe clay and a church built in 1629.

Gilbert Concho, a 60-year-old master potter and spiritual elder of the Acoma tribe here, navigates these worlds. In his house, halfway between the traditions on the reservation and the new economy of the casino, he has transformed a spare bedroom into a shrine to the Dallas Cowboys.

It appears to have been designed by the team’s owner, Jerry Jones, himself: 40 Cowboys T-shirts, 15 pairs of socks, a dozen hats, 10 jackets, 2 blankets, a wine bottle bearing Mel Renfro’s likeness, a pennant, an ashtray and a tortilla warmer, all awash in blue and silver.

Even here, in what the Acoma describe as the oldest continuously occupied village in the United States, the Dallas Cowboys connect a community fighting to maintain ancient traditions while adapting to the modern world.

Concho worries constantly. He frets about losing the next generation to drugs and alcohol and teenage pregnancy. He dwells on his declining health. And he wonders, like much of America, if the pop starlet Jessica Simpson is messing with the confidence of Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.

“I worry we’re losing our traditional ways,” Concho said, sitting on a bed in his shrine, his feet tucked into Cowboys socks and moccasins. He abruptly switched topics. “And tell Romo to stay away from Jessica,” he said. “We have a game to win this weekend.”

Concho’s ancestors settled in Acoma Pueblo around 1150. They built their village on the mesa, 367 feet above the valley, positioned strategically to defend against raiders. (Presumably, not the ones from Oakland.)

The pueblo looks like a set for a Western movie. In fact, John Wayne made several films here. A Tim McGraw video and two Toyota commercials were also shot on the mesa.

Inside the church, which was built without nails but with beams carried 30 miles from Mount Taylor, the tour guide Fred Stevens carries a knit stocking cap with Romo’s name stitched across the front.

He pointed to the oldest confessional and oldest classrooms in the United States, to the candles that spiral 25 feet up from the altar — red to represent their native religion, white to represent the Catholicism of the Spanish who enslaved the people here.

Outside the mission is a cemetery, measuring 400 feet by 400 feet, and 40 feet deep. The tribe prefers the term replanted, instead of buried, because members believe they came from the earth and will eventually return to it. Humps of clay surround the cemetery, with eyes, noses and ears carved into them. They are soldiers guarding the dead.

The tribe has about 3,600 members, and 10 to 15 families live year-round in the pueblo. Theirs is a matriarchal society. The women own the houses on the mesa, each inherited by the youngest daughter in a family.

The Acoma practice a religion heavy on song, ritual and ceremony. They grow corn, beans and squash in the valley below. They infuse pop-culture influences with Spanish, Mexican and Indian traditions.

The best example is the Cowboys, America’s team, their favorite in all of football. And like anywhere else, the Cowboys inspire strong feelings.

“I hate them,” said Gary Keene, another guide who lives on the pueblo. “Too many Cowboys fans around here. The only good thing to come out of Texas, in my opinion, was ZZ Top.”

Everything in Acoma connects — the people and the traditions, the ancestors and the spirits, the animals and the plants and the soil. Even football.

Concho discovered the game in seventh grade. He played defensive tackle, fullback and middle linebacker in six seasons for the varsity.

Before games, he painted stripes on his face, a red one from dark clay on top and a shiny purple stripe on bottom. This served as a blessing from a higher power, he said, and a reminder of his ancestors. It kept him healthy, kept him safe.

“I always wanted to be that warrior,” said Concho, whose black hair is now flecked with gray. “Like the times when I used to think, What was it like back then? When we were fighting the Spanish and all that.”

The Battle of Acoma started in 1598, when warriors killed 13 Spanish soldiers. The conquistador Juan de Oñate and 70 men retaliated by killing hundreds in the tribe. Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá described the battle in a poem, with its descriptions of the mangled dead, pierced flesh and quivering bodies.

After the three-day battle ended, de Oñate cut the feet off the remaining adult men and enslaved the entire pueblo. The history of Acoma is defined by this kind of tragedy and sadness. The people here learn of persecution, prosecution and genocide. A resiliency remains, born from traditions passed from one generation to the next.

Concho knows that resiliency, that sadness. He worked the graveyard shift in the nearby uranium mines for 20 years, 2,500 feet deep inside the shaft. He said he beat alcoholism, only to wake up 10 years ago with an unfathomable pain in his stomach.

Two of his siblings died from Hodgkin’s disease, but tests and scans have revealed nothing so far. In his shrine, he keeps a Cowboys bag with his medication: the insulin for his diabetes, the morphine for his pain, the 20 pills he swallows every day.

Diabetes, alcoholism and the effects from the uranium mines are common on the reservation.

The pain subsides for a few hours most Sundays in the fall, when the Cowboys are on the satellite dish and Concho rests in his comfortable green easy chair.

“Sometimes I feel down about my illness and my stomach,” he said. “I’m scared. But I always love the Cowboys. They are my favorite team.”

With the energy he still has, Concho makes the intricate pottery that line shelves in his living room. He leads prayers. He writes songs performed on sacred holidays. He speaks in schools and wonders, he said, if children “really believe anymore.”

He wants to ensure the traditions are passed on.

“Just like beating the drum, you know,” Concho said. “Everything must be passed down.”

Including this obsession with the Cowboys.

Tina Torivio, a 36-year-old tribe member, swears she has been a Dallas fan since birth. In high school, she dreamed of becoming a Cowboys cheerleader. On a trip to Dallas in 1983, she begged relatives to drive her around the empty stadium.

She watched games with her father before he died. Years later, she said, it feels as if he is sitting next to her, shouting in spirit at the television.

Children at school never understood. They used to ask Stevens, the guide, Shouldn’t you like the Redskins or the Chiefs? “I didn’t think Indians liked Cowboys,” he said.

As the tour continued, Stevens pointed to huts where Cowboys fans live, to stands of pottery made by women who swoon over Romo. He told stories of catching people in cars during sacred ceremonies, listening to games. Of villagers bringing generators to the mesa to catch the Cowboys on TV. Of being unable to contain his excitement after the Cowboys won the Super Bowl and his boss sending him home from work.

Of all the fans here, only Concho has made the pilgrimage of about 700 miles to Texas Stadium for a game. He went on Thanksgiving two years ago, with tickets from a friend, the former Cowboy and author Pat Toomay. Sheryl Crow sang the national anthem. Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey signed his book. Cowboys guard Larry Allen, his favorite player, stopped to talk.

“One of the best days of my life,” Concho said.

On Wednesday, he rested on a bench at the scenic viewpoint. Several miles behind him, the casino continued to churn out the money with which the tribe built new schools and civic centers. Front and center, the old village rises in the distance, a postcard in sandstone.

Caught between these worlds, Concho stared in silence across the valley. His leather Cowboys jacket glistened in the sun.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Interior Secretary Rejects Catskill Casino Plans - New York Times

The federal government rejected plans for two casinos in the Catskill Mountains on Friday, saying that the reservations of the two tribes that submitted the plans were too far from where the casinos would be built.

The decision was a major setback in the 30-year effort to bring gambling to Sullivan County, which proponents hoped would breathe new life into the area’s depressed economy.

One of the proposed casinos, at Monticello Raceway, received the support of Gov. Eliot Spitzer and was expected to attract six million visitors a year, generate 3,000 jobs and provide New York State with an estimated $100 million a year. But the plans faced intense opposition from the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups, and required the final approval of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.

On Friday, Mr. Kempthorne sent a letter to the St. Regis Mohawk tribe saying that the proposed casino in Monticello was too far from its Akwesasne Reservation, which is about 300 miles away, near Massena, on the Canadian border. He also sent a nearly identical letter to the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe, which is based in Wisconsin and had planned to build a large casino in the town of Thompson, not far from Monticello.

Mr. Kempthorne, who has long opposed Indian casinos on nonreservation land, said in his letters that the casinos would be too far away to offer jobs to tribal residents and that forcing residents to relocate would hurt the reservations.

“The departure of a significant number of reservation residents and their families could have serious and far-reaching implications for the remaining tribal community and its continuity as a community,” he said in the letters.

In a statement released Friday night, the Natural Resources Defense Council called the decision a major victory and said the casinos would have burdened the Catskills with pollution, traffic congestion and sprawl.

Representative Maurice Hinchey, a Democrat from New York who has strongly supported the proposed casinos, said proponents of the plans would not give up. “It is clear that the next opportunity for these proposed casinos to move forward and be objectively evaluated will be under a new administration by a different secretary of the interior, who under current law has the final determination in this matter at this time,” he said in a statement.