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"At the Interface"

W. Richard West is present at the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian

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W. Richard West and daughter Amy in Cheyenne dress.

W. Richard West and daughter Amy in Cheyenne dress.

Photograph courtesy National Museum of the American Indian/ Smithsonian Institution

On a rainy September morning in 1999, hundreds of Native Americans gathered on the Mall near the U.S. Capitol to celebrate the groundbreaking for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, in full Cheyenne regalia and war paint, stepped to the podium and gently chided his friend, W. Richard West, A.M. '68, the museum's founding director. "Why," he asked his fellow Cheyenne, "are you dressed in that strange clothing?"

West, a trim, handsome man known for both his natty attire and wicked sense of humor, took the kidding about his business suit in stride. This past December, to mark the opening of an exhibition on Plains Indian shirts at the George Gustav Heye Center, NMAI's outpost in New York City, he showed up wearing his Cheyenne costume.

For West, son of a prominent Cheyenne artist and a music teacher of Scottish descent, the Native American garb fits just as comfortably as the suit. A talented Indian dancer, a lover of the outdoors, and a collector of contemporary Indian art, West is also a lawyer and lobbyist skilled at navigating Washington's corridors of power on behalf of Native American concerns. For the new museum, he has been both an eloquent spokesman and a prodigious fundraiser, securing more than $60 million in donations.

Some Native Americans grumble privately at West's cultural ambidexterity--a key job requirement when there are hundreds of tribes, 25 museum board members, and legions of congressional purse holders to please. Edward H. Able, president of the American Association of Museums (AAM), says that West--who recently finished a two-year term as chairman of the AAM board--has "a presence and a style that bring people together." Roger Kennedy, retired director of the National Park Service and a member of the search committee that chose West to head NMAI, says he admires his friend's "astonishing capacity to walk a razor blade,...to maintain his balance between the buffeting and brevity of focus of the contemporary world and a steady commitment to enduring values derived from his own essential culture."

At 58, sure of himself and his talents, West doesn't argue with Kennedy's characterization. On the edge is "probably the best place for me always to be," he says. "That's where I can do the most good--even though it's kind of risky business."

 

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Jeff Tinsley

The biggest risk of all may be the one he's taking now. West, whose Harvard degree is in American history, is in a position to transform the way Americans see both Indians and museums. Although he served five years as coordinator and treasurer of the Native American Council of Regents of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, gaining valuable insights into the contemporary Indian art world, West was not a museum professional when he assumed the NMAI directorship in 1990. But no one disagrees that the new institution is animated by his vision--what he calls "history told from the inside out."

Created in 1989 by federal legislation, the museum is an unusual collaboration between the Smithsonian--traditional repository of the nation's treasures--and Indian tribes, who have generally viewed both the government and museums with suspicion. NMAI currently includes the Heye Center, which opened in 1994; the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, where most of the extraordinary 800,000-piece Heye Collection will be stored; and the centerpiece building on the National Mall, set to open in September 2003. A curvilinear limestone structure designed with tribal advice, it will showcase the stories that Native Americans tell about themselves--with artifacts they have selected from the collection. NMAI also encompasses what West proudly calls "the Fourth Museum," an ambitious outreach effort that includes a website, traveling exhibitions, loans to tribal museums, and community programs.

Indian activist Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Washington-based Morning Star Foundation, which promotes Native American rights, says West was her only choice for the job. He was "committed to contemporary Native art because of his dad," she says, and adept at dealing with the federal bureaucracy. "Plus," she adds, "from his time at Harvard, he knew his history."

West recalls somberly that some of his Cheyenne relatives were killed in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado. But he has enough distance to manage some ironic humor about his background. His Scottish mother's great-great-great uncle, he told the National Press Club on the eve of the NMAI ground- breaking, was General George Armstrong Custer's roommate at West Point. Said West, "[Custer] is a subject on which my mother's forebears and my father's forebears were in complete agreement: He was not a particularly nice man."

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Crossing cultures: West is equally comfortable in Native American garb and museum-director attire. The fringed Assiniboine shirt and Crow child's dress are from the NMAI collections.
Photographs courtesy National Museum of the American Indian/ Smithsonian Institution

West's parents, now deceased, met at Bacone College, a Baptist missionary school in eastern Oklahoma; his mother, Maribelle McCrea, was teaching music and his father, Walter Richard West Sr., was an art student, and later headed Bacone's art department. When West was 13, his father took him to New York see the Heye Collection. "It was more Indian material than I had ever seen in my life," he says now, "almost overwhelming"--in particular the artifacts of his own Cheyenne ancestors.

His father counseled West and his brother, "You are Cheyenne, and don't you ever forget that." As a result, West speaks of a "bona-fide rootedness [in Cheyenne culture] that centers me." His father also warned his sons that they would need higher education to succeed in the larger world. "We were pushed as fast as our little minds would run," West says. "I think we have six or seven degrees between us." He attended the University of Redlands, his mother's alma mater, and found a mentor in the late Earl Cranston, Ph.D. '31, an historian whom he credits with helping him gain admission to Harvard. It was in Cambridge, through family connections, that he met his future wife, Mary Ann Braden, a lawyer who is deputy assistant secretary of state for oceans and fisheries; the couple have two grown children.

West left Harvard without a doctorate because he felt he could have "more direct impact as an attorney than...as a college professor." (Today he serves on the visiting committees for the Graduate School of Education and the Peabody Museum, and on the advisory council of the Native American Program.) Armed with a law degree from Stanford, he worked on Indian-related cases from 1973 to 1988 for the firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobson in Washington, and then as a partner in the Indian-owned Albuquerque firm Gover, Stetson, Williams & West.

At both places, he found himself right where he likes to be, "at the interface" where "the Indian world and aspirations engage the other world." Pursuing a claim by the Lakota to the Black Hills of South Dakota, in 1980 he helped win a $117-million settlement--the largest ever in an Indian land dispute. (The Lakota have never taken the money because they "felt it would compromise their claim to the land itself," says West, who believes they should have the money and some of the land.) He headed an oversight committee that helped rescue the ailing American Indian National Bank in Washington. As a founding board member of the Morning Star Foundation, West "was involved in all our efforts to create the NMAI from 1984 on and to negotiate the repatriation agreement [for the return to the tribes of Indian cultural property]," says Suzan Shown Harjo.

 

At Nmai, James Volkert, assistant director for exhibitions and public spaces, says West's greatest achievement has been "to give the institution a kind of national presence, as if it were already built." Which is not to say his tenure as director has always been smooth. In the mid 1990s, West recalls, Congress kept eliminating the museum's construction money from the federal budget. "I knew my way around the Hill," he says. "I felt I could help us out there--and I did." More painful, on a personal level, was a financial dispute that led to the 1998 firing of an architectural consortium that included Douglas Cardinal, a well-known Canadian architect of Blackfeet descent. The firing was not just a public-relations disaster; it stalled the design process temporarily, generated a lawsuit (since settled), and embittered Cardinal. West says the stress of the dispute "almost crossed that magic line, from positive and energizing to negative and enervating."

Today, the most frequently heard complaint about NMAI is that not enough of its top staffers are Indian. "There's Rick and a lot of white folks," says Harjo. Although Bruce Bernstein, who fills the key post of assistant director for cultural resources, is not Native American, West says many of the curators who work for him are. Volkert--also non-Indian--says "the situation has changed for the better over time," with some recent Indian hires, including artist and curator Gerald McMaster (Plains Cree), in senior positions.

West concedes that the razor's edge on which he balances gets "very thin sometimes." In the end, he says, he hopes people will say that he was "an effective but gentle visionary." For now, there is the challenge of the job itself. "I've yet to be burned out, or burned up," he says. "I bounce out of bed every morning."