Native Peoples Aren't Dinosaurs

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), September 10, 2006 | Go to article overview

Native Peoples Aren't Dinosaurs


Byline: Rennard Strickland For The Register-Guard

On Sept. 6 The Register-Guard published a story about American Indian artist Jenny `Chapoose' Taylor and her beaded art. She grew up on the Vintah-Ovray Reservation in northeastern Utah, where at 9 years of age she learned traditional Indian beading techniques from her aunt.

Although rejected from the Eugene Mayor's Art Show, the work, titled `Nations,' has become a part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Taylor said she looked forward to going to Washington to `maybe get to meet the director.'

The same morning the article appeared, that museum director was in Eugene at the University of Oregon School of Law, teaching his first class as Wayne Morse Distinguished Professor of Law and Politics.

The director, W. Richard West Jr., a Cheyenne Indian lawyer, has for the last 17 years served as the founding director and the guiding force of the National Museum of the American Indian. For the next month, West will be teaching classes, guiding a conference on museums, delivering a major public lecture and working with Oregon native people in connection with the UO's Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics and its two-year program exploring Native American identity and represen- tation.

West graduated from law school at Stanford University in 1971 after completing a masters in history at Harvard University. The son of Dick West, an internationally acclaimed painter and sculptor, West was in his early teens when his family traveled across country from their Oklahoma homeland to the New England summer camps where his father taught art. That summer, the West family went to see the Indian materials at the Smithsonian, called `the nation's attic."

Historically, most of the Smithsonian's Indian art and artifacts were housed in the National History Museum alongside the fossils of prehistoric plants and the skeletons of dinosaurs. Young Richard remembers asking his father why the Indians were with the dinosaurs. His father, a college art professor, replied, `I guess they think we are extinct, too.'

With the creation of the NMAI, West, Congress, the Smithsonian and thousands of individual citizens and tribal groups have begun to reverse that stereotyped view of native people as dinosaurs.

I will always remember, soon after West assumed the directorship, a meeting he held with tribal people in the heart of Chickasaw Nation. He told the story of his first visit to the Smithsonian, and proclaimed `We are not dinosaurs' - affirming that the museum would be a monument to living people focusing not only upon the glory of native history, but the achievements of contemporary Indians and the potential of an even greater Indian future.

It is my honor and privilege to team-teach a class on Native American culture and intellectual property rights with West. Our hope, and the hope of the Morse Center, is that over the next year - through courses, workshops and lectures - that citizens of our community and beyond can come to understand how and why the understanding of native life and culture is so important. Our goal is to help people look beyond the stereotype of `the Washington Redskins,' `the Fighting Illini,' `the vanished American,' `the Last of the Mohicans,' and the adventures of the Lone Ranger and Tonto - his faithful Indian companion. …

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