A place of reconciliation
Talking with W. Richard West
by: Philip Burnham / Correspondent / Indian Country Today

W. Richard West, Cheyenne and Arapaho, is founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), whose Washington, D.C. site will open this September. A graduate of Stanford law school, West served as counsel to numerous Indian tribes in federal, state and tribal courts before his appointment as NMAI director in 1990. He currently serves on several boards, including the National Parks and Conservation Association, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the American Indian Resources Institute. Recently, Indian Country Today spoke with West about NMAIís mission, internal governance, exhibition content, and repatriation policy.

Indian Country Today: On the NMAI Web site, the museum is heralded as a "symbol of reconciliation." Reconciliation for whom and over what?

Richard West: On one level the reconciliation is of Native peoples with their own past, which has been extremely difficult and has been anything but picturesque history in lots of ways. And this institution is giving [Native people] a legitimate sense of self, cultural selfhood, if you will. Itís not some kind of mindless affirmation; itís a deeper understanding of exactly what the nature of our own cultural experience in history is, in ways that I think will demonstrate the vast contributions that Native people have made to what anybody calls "civilization" in this hemisphere.

The other reconciliation is of a different kind, but it still is reconciliation. Thereís a respect in which, since the beginning of history in this country, there has also been a lack of reconciliation between Native and non-Native. And I think that the groundwork for a reconciliation in that set of circumstances begins with everybodyís more complete understanding of the Native place in history.

ICT: In the sense of exposing a history of injustice and focusing on a single ethnic group, the museum that the NMAI would most seem to resemble in Washington is the Holocaust Museum. How will the two institutions be different?

RW: In my view, that similarity is virtually only on the face of it. The Holocaust Museum, as quite properly it should be considering its origins and its charter, is about a very singular and terrible moment in time - the Holocaust as it related to Jews during the period around World War II.

This museum does indeed encompass periods of history that are, in historical impact, highly akin to the Holocaust for Jews. The fact is there was a holocaust in this hemisphere that resulted in catastrophic demographic impact alone. I mean, within the period of probably two generations, the demographics in this hemisphere had changed so dramatically that probably no more than 25 percent to a third of those who originally had been here were still here. So we know holocaust in this hemisphere as Native Americans.

But I would like to emphasize what the NMAI is about and the respect in which it differs somewhat from the Holocaust Museum. ... Looking at the period between 1491 and now is a tiny fraction of the length and tenure of our cultural experience in this hemisphere. Itís no more than 5 percent, even if you think we have been here only 20,000 years - and some continue to push that date back. Thatís still a tiny fraction of our presence in this hemisphere, and the fact is that all through that period Ö Native peoples have continued to survive culturally and indeed, in certain periods, to thrive culturally and to make immense contributions in art and numerous aspects of culture to what we all define as civilization. So Iím very respectful of the fact that we need to address certain periods of Native history that are tough and ugly, and we need to do it forthrightly and with authority and with authenticity. And we will. By the same token, Iíve always been the first to emphasize, as the director of the institution, that that is not the exclusive or sole focus of the NMAI. We are not about that kind of singularity of historical time or period. Weíre about the expanse, the continuum of the Native cultural experience in this hemisphere.

ICT: The enabling legislation for the museum said the Board of Trustees will consist of 23 members, of whom 12 must be Native people, plus the Smithsonian secretary and his designate.

RW: They wanted Natives to be one more than half the number on the board, apart from the secretary and the secretary designate.

ICT: What about the fact that Natives make up one less than half in terms of the total 25-member board?

RW: Well, I wasnít around when the legislation was passed. Itís never really been an issue, and frankly, I would say that in many periods of time we have had more than 12 Native people on the board, especially if you are counting people of Native descent from outside the U.S. who cannot be counted for purposes of that legislative calculation. For awhile, Gerald McMaster [Plains Cree, Deputy Assistant Director for Cultural Resources], for example, was a member of the Board of Trustees. Nobody doubts heís First Nations from Canada, but because of the way the legislation defines the term "American Indian" or "Native American," he didnít count.

ICT: So weíre talking about 12 Native people from the United States.

RW: Twelve people who satisfy the definition of Native American in the United States. That definition is defined by statute, mostly law that sits in the BIA statutes and regulations.

ICT: Letís move on to the exhibitions. Did you have anything to do with vetting the exhibit scripts?

RW: The director always has to vet the exhibits finally.

ICT: Have you been involved with the scripts for some time, or are you coming in at the end of the process?

RW: The exhibitions come out of a very lengthy process that actually began when I first got here in the early 1990s. At the time we were selecting which communities might best be collaborated with in connection with the exhibitions. I was part of that process, as you might expect. And then as weíve gone on down the road, talking about design as well as curation of those exhibitions through scripts and physical design, Iíve been involved in all that, too.

ICT: It is a wonderful collection of communities.

RW: We wanted there to be diversity, which there is. Weíre well represented from all quarters of the hemisphere. Thatís very important to me because the collection has that kind of diversity in it, and weíve always thought of ourselves as a hemispheric institution, notwithstanding our name. Weíre not just an institution of Native people in the U.S., in my own view.

ICT: You mentioned the Indian holocaust earlier. Given the charged political atmosphere at the Smithsonian, especially after the Enola Gay flap, will it be difficult to celebrate Native cultures at the same time you tell some awful stories that might make some people uncomfortable?

RW: You cannot have been at the Smithsonian over the past decade and not be sensitive to those issues. By the same token, they have never been our exclusive guidepost in this. We are sensitive to such issues; we want to be aware of those things which may cause people some difficulty or question. But weíre not going to skirt something on that basis alone. We may try to go two extra steps to explicate ourselves or to indicate how we got to where we are on a particular issue or matter. But weíre not going to avoid it for that reason.

I also would say that there is a respect in which the fundamental nature of the treatment of Native peoples and communities in this country historically is a subject about which most people have a similar conclusion. You have to go some distance to find the person who will look you straight in the eye and tell you American Indians have nothing to complain about with respect to their treatment. And what Iím saying, without trying to brush away the idea that there will be issues here with which weíll have to deal, is that there is that preponderance of viewpoint, I think, which gives Native people a little more latitude in this regard.

ICT: Are there certain words in the exhibit text youíve tried to stay away from?

RW: Again, itís not that we havenít discussed some of those words, but itís not been so much from the standpoint of "Are they politically charged, and therefore should they be or not be in these exhibitions?" The inquiry is always "Does the word really advance the point weíre making?" Or "does it lend itself to the discourse that should occur on this subject?" And one of the great beauties of the Holocaust Museum, since you raised that institution, for which I have the greatest admiration, is that if you look at their exhibition presentation, thereís very little hyperbole, very little editorializing. It is basically a presentation of certain kinds of data and information that people are then left to decipher for themselves. And I think thatís a very healthy approach. I have urged in our case that we attempt to do things that are similar in that regard.

ICT: Letís take an example: Will the word "genocide" be used?

RW: I canít recall off the top of my head if itís used or not. If it were, it would probably be in the exhibit "Our Peoples." Certainly itís hard to think of certain parts of that historical experience and not have the word come to mind, but again it would be the question, "Is it the word we would want to use as a matter of the story weíre trying to tell that is the most useful from our standpoint in raising an issue and positing an issue and talking about it?

ICT: If anything, this sounds like a museum where Native communities have had sovereignty in creating exhibits. Are these communities really sovereign? Have they had or will they have a chance to vet what goes into the final show?

Richard West: I would probably use a slightly different word than sovereignty. Sovereignty, to me, is - and Iím a lawyer, remember - a legal term, certainly. And itís also a political term. It is certainly related to some of the words that I would use to characterize what you just talked about, but it might be a slightly different word. I consider Native communities to be authoritative as far as the work of the museum goes - as far as establishing points of view, generating information, generating knowledge. That is what I think most Native communities from a cultural point aspire to or hope for - that they will be treated at the table of conversations about Native cultures and peoples as an authoritative voice with respect to their own past, present, and future.

ICT: What kind of evaluation procedure will be in place to provide feedback from the public at-large and the communities themselves?

RW: Evaluation is terribly important. And we do plan in connection with these exhibitions, which would occur after the museum is open, in having a systematic process in place. Our exhibit scripts do identify the fundamental ideas that one is trying to get across. That certainly is true of the NMAI-curated parts of the exhibitions, and itís really even true with respect to the community-curated parts of the exhibition.

ICT: Will the dialogue between community and museum continue after the museum opens?

RW: The dialogue continues in many different forms around the museum. The exhibitions are by no means the only example of our engagement with communities. And all of it will continue. For one thing, we are on a rotating basis bringing other communities into the exhibition galleries. But there are other places. Public Programs has a variety of non-exhibition programs. Or research, which takes place now in Cultural Resources, is a highly collaborative enterprise, going both ways, where we are both a recipient of Native knowledge and then, with the other hand, turn products around the other way, whether it is a book of photographs that relate to a particular community, or information that somebody participating in a fellowship or an internship will take back to the community.

I mean, itís not our phrase, but we really invented the concept of "what goes around, comes around." Itís the spirit of the giveaway. And I think that will always be a hallmark of this place, at least as long as I sit here - this kind of collaboration, a mutually participatory relationship with Native communities.

ICT: Since all the original communities are still on board, there seems to be satisfaction with the process.

RW: We havenít lost anybody. Weíre not doing as many as we originally hoped to do, but thatís not because somebody dropped out. I know in the case of "Our Peoples", simply because it was such a massive exhibition, it was so complicated they had the highest number of tribes at one time. We first cut it back to 12 - the Tlingits and somebody else went out initially, and then the Blackfeet and one of the Apache tribes did, too. And they were actually a little bit upset with us - but because they werenít going to be there, not because we were doing something that they didnít want us to do. But we worked out an arrangement which provides that they will be first up for those that rotate into the exhibition galleries next.

ICT: Aside from exhibits, the museum is also involved in repatriation efforts. What kind of repatriation has gone on since the NMAI took over the Heye collection in 1990?

RW: Repatriation was an issue I thought was important for us to deal with sooner rather than later. Remember that in connection with the repatriation legislation, the first repatriation act that was passed was our authorizing legislation. Half of that legislation was that part which required the Smithsonian, on request and after certain due process, to return human remains to Native communities. That was a full year before NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act).

And in two key respects I can think of, as a lawyer at least, they were different from NAGPRA. One, we had a different standard of proof. Our repatriation policy relies on a "reasonable man" standard rather than a preponderance of the evidence. There are meaningful distinctions in that. [Two], our policy covered state recognized tribes in addition to federal recognized tribes. And so we adopted a policy that was, in some respects, more expansive than NAGPRA.

We have had a repatriation office for over a decade now. We have deaccessioned and either have begun moving materials out of the collection or have moved them out completely in at least 2,000 instances. Our board of trustees adopted a policy in the mid-í90s that they wanted the return of funeral remains to be the highest priority, absent a tribeís specific indication to us - which has occurred in several instances, that they wanted a different priority attached to their material. For the most part, our staff in the repatriation area have concentrated on the return of human remains. And thatís where we have spent most of our time. Of the 2,000, we have only about 500 entries that are human remains, so obviously we have repatriated a good deal of other material.

And yet just looking at our specific case, Iím fond of pointing out to those who thought we would have 18-wheelers rumbling at the back-bay door for the last 10 years gutting this collection, that, after 10 years of conscientious repatriation thatís very consistent with the policy aims and the requirements of the legislation, we now still have 798,000 objects with which to do exhibitions. And I think we can do a couple of fairly good ones with that.

What you have really seen come out of repatriation is a new era of meaningful collaboration and genuinely mutually participatory relationships between museums and Native communities that goes way beyond repatriation.

ICT: Many museums have taken liberties with human remains and Native artifacts. Ishiís brain, in fact, was discovered not long ago at the Smithsonian. The current secretary of the institution was given two years probation for owning art objects made with feathers of endangered species. Do you have complete confidence in the goodwill and competence of the Smithsonian in terms of repatriation?

RW: I do. I have complete confidence in both our good faith and our competence to do what we are required to do. And understand that this is not some kind of grudging performance of duty here. I remember being looked at rather quizzically by people when I said I was perfectly happy as a museum director with the requirements of the repatriation legislation. And the reason I was is that, as far as Iím concerned, the future strength of this institution depends upon the continued viability of contemporary Native cultures. We are an international institution of living cultures, weíre not an ethnographic museum - thereís a distinction. We are not retrospective. We live in the present and we look toward the future. And if we look toward the future in our desires to represent and interpret Native cultures and communities going forward, they need to be strong in terms of their continuing generation of material culture and ideas and thinking and art.

I think what we have done satisfies any measure that anybody would wish to impose on it. And I think you would find me confirmed by the Native communities with whom we have dealt on the subject of repatriation. I think that, in the main, in the vast majority of instances, those with whom we have dealt on repatriation matters would describe us as committed to the aims of the legislation and working hard and diligently and competently to get it done.

©2004 Indian Country Today

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