An overflow crowd of Lumbee tribal representatives, elected officials and invited guests attended a reception on May 4 in UNC Pembroke’s Thomas Assembly Room in Old Main to honor Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI).
Gover was the commencement speaker for UNCP’s May 5 undergraduate commencement. A member of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, Gover spoke as UNCP celebrated its 125th anniversary as an institution founded by and for American Indians.
Chancellor Kyle R. Carter said he was looking for the right speaker for an historic moment in the life of the university. “We considered our history when we were selecting a speaker for this year,” he said. “I think we made a good choice. As the university grows, it should not lose sight of its roots.”
Gover has a distinguished resume as a law professor and top official at the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. He is familiar with the Lumbee tribe, which is headquartered in Pembroke. He thanked Dr. Freda Porter, who is a former UNCP trustee and current member of NMAI’s governance committee.
In introducing Gover to the local audience, Dr. Mary Ann Jacobs, chair of UNCP’s Department of American Indian Studies, thanked him for his support of state-recognized tribes like the Lumbee.
“This community has had a long relationship with the museum through Helen Scheirbeck,” Dr. Jacobs said. A Lumbee from Pembroke, the late Scheirbeck was a founding NMAI board member and later an employee.
Gover spoke first of UNCP’s heritage. “It might be easy for a university to forget its history as it evolves and as it grows to engage its future,” he said. “At the museum, we are attempting to preserve American Indian history.”
NMAI’s director offered an inside view of the 10-year-old museum’s changing mission. The founding mission was to demonstrate the diversity of American Indian tribes in the Western Hemisphere, their vibrancy and continuing contributions to the Americas.
As the 10th anniversary of the museum approaches, Gover explained that its mission is evolving. “We are considering what it means to be a national museum,” he said. “How will we tell this national story?
“We will tell the story of all indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere,” he said. “Every part of the Western Hemisphere was occupied at the time of contact with Western Europeans.
“We will survey what was true in 1492 and the reality of 15,000 years of pre-contact civilization,” Gover continued. “The Americas were not a wilderness when Europeans arrived. There were, perhaps, as many people here in 1492 as there were in Europe.”
Kevin Gover was given a numbered print of Lumbee hero Henry Berry Lowrie from the university. From left are the artist Gloria Tara Lowery, Gover, Kayla Cummings, a student leader, and Olivia Oxendine, School of Education faculty.
The story of pre- Columbian America is a rich one, he said. One example is the story of estimated 10 million people living in Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas.
“Hunger was unknown there,” he said. “That’s an astonishing achievement for any civilization.”
NMAI’s reinvigorated mission will also take a new look at the stories of European engagement. “The truth is always so much more interesting,” Gover promised.
Further, Gover promised the real story of American Indian perseverance as it blended into the global story of America. It promises to be inclusive and enriching.
“That’s what being a national museum should be about,” Gover said. “It should be about Indians and for everyone. Everyone who enters should find something about themselves.”
Returning to UNCP’s 125th anniversary, Gover said it is important to acknowledge the founders of the university. “This too is a Native American contribution to the region, state and nation,” he concluded.
In recognition of his visit, Gover was given a university medal by Dr. Robin Cummings, chairman of the board of trustees, and a print of Lumbee hero Henry Berry Lowrie created by local artist Gloria Tara Lowery.