W. Richard West, Cheyenne/Arapaho, s 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 NMAI's
mission, internal governance, exhibition content, and repatriation policy.
Indian Country Today: 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 I'm a lawyer, remember - a legal
term, certainly. And it's 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 it's really even true
with respect to the community-curated parts of the exhibition.
ICT: Will the dialogue between community and museum continue after the
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, it's not our phrase, but we really invented the concept of "what
goes around, comes around." It's 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 haven't lost anybody. We're not doing as many as we originally hoped
to do, but that's 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 weren't going to be there,
not because we were doing something that they didn't 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-'90s that they wanted the return of
funeral remains to be the highest priority, absent a tribe's 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 that's 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, I'm 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 that's 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
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. Ishi's 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 I'm concerned, the future strength of
this institution depends upon the continued viability of contemporary
Native cultures. We are an international institution of living cultures,
we're not an ethnographic museum - there's 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
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.