W. Richard West, a Southern Cheyenne, grew up in Oklahoma the son of highly regarded American Indian artist Walter Richard West Sr. His great-grandfather was a chief of the Cheyenne, as were a great-uncle and two of his father brothers.
Now West is himself a chief of the Southern Cheyenne. He's also director of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), Washington's newest addition to the Smithsonian Institution, which will open its doors in September 2004.
Located on the National Mall next to the Air and Space Museum, NMAI will house, among other items, the George Gustav Heye Collection of more than 800,000 cultural and other objects from more than 1,000 indigenous tribes of North and South America, once exhibited in New York City. Former Smithsonian director Robert McCormick Adams, an anthropologist by training, played a major role in NMAI's creation, says West, as did Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).
West is an attorney who has served as general counsel and special counsel to Indian tribes and organizations, arguing jurisdictional disputes and water and fishing rights as a partner in a Washington law firm and later as a partner of a firm in Albuquerque. He also has been chairman of the board of directors of the American Association of Museums.
A big challenge for the new museum, West tells INSIGHT, will be creating a place where Indian life is shown as ongoing and dynamic instead of something from the past that has ceased to exist. The collection NMAI houses, he says, will be part of the "cultural continuance of contemporary American native communities." American Indian culture isn't dead; it's very much alive, and NMAI's task will be to try "to document, interpret and represent these vital phenomena," West says.
INSIGHT: The National Museum of the American Indian will open its doors in two years. How did something that's been anticipated for so many years finally begin to become a reality?
W. RICHARD WEST: It was a confluence of several factors. The first is quite general. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Native Americans were in a greater position of visibility and acceptance than they had ever: been in the past. There was a more hospitable attitude toward them and there were regrets about the past they had experienced.
This was the general sentiment both on the part of the American population and on the part of Congress. There also was the fact that the great George Gustav Heye Collection was in serious financial straits and looking for a new home. That was a long, tortuous trail in many ways. The possibilities ran from Fort Worth [Texas] or Oklahoma City to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. None of them seemed to work out.
These factors came together at exactly the right time.
Q: It's going to be a big task for the museum to exhibit the cultures of all the various tribes. Just how many peoples will be represented?
A: At this time, there are over 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States, to say nothing of another 50 to 60 state-recognized tribes. Of course that doesn't include the First Nations in Canada or indigenous communities in South America, so throughout the hemisphere my guess is you're talking between 1,000 or 1,500 native communities.
It is a complicated task to figure out how to represent all this. Everyone understands that, as a pure matter of physical space, we can't get everybody on the exhibition floor at the same time.
At this point, we have ongoing working relationships with approximately 30 native communities from throughout the hemisphere who will be represented on opening day in September' 2004. We want to rotate and change the exhibitions on a periodic basis every two or three years.
That will allow us to get more peoples on the floor. At the same time it will allow us to complete what I regard as a very important circle by giving something directly back to the native community that helped us put on the exhibition. …