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.”