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Apodaca: Under West's wing, NMAI made history

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The Washington Post has engaged in selective perception in its reporting about former National Museum of the American Indian Director W. Richard West Jr. and his efforts to bring together the people, resources and perspectives needed to make the NMAI not only a Smithsonian-quality institution but to make it relevant to the Native people it represents in its holdings. Few outside the museum world or Indian country can appreciate how terrible the relationship has been between museums and Native folks. West turned resources usually held for the elite to the service and inclusion of Natives and traveled to meet communities on their own ground, engage cultural leaders around the world, and announce the presence of American Indians and indigenous concerns as part of the world conversation for the 21st century. He battled stereotypes from every angle while maintaining inclusiveness as the primary value that would make the NMAI a public statement as well as an institution.

The selective report by the Post missed the social significance of an American Indian professional becoming an in-demand player in the normally exclusionary world of museum officials and cultural ministers. Raking over the budget of West's efforts is a parlor trick that, when employed against any business or government professional, can seem to reveal questionable activity. How much does the White House spend on napkins alone at a State dinner? How much does it cost per minute for the president or a cabinet member to travel with their entourage? Which seat did West sit in on an airplane or which room did he sleep in at a hotel? Such trivia is not serious investigative journalism.

The Smithsonian and the press knew West was a lawyer when he was appointed director of the NMAI, having passed over a number of well-qualified museum curators and directors who were Native. It was understood this would mean West would be spending time re-training in areas of museology, meeting with directors from institutions from around the world, and seeking to represent Native concerns with the same importance and protocol normally seen in such settings. He was not appointed to be the poor man allowed in the room but to be an equal in the operation of institutions charged with the national stewardship of culture. NMAI was not supposed to be a demonstration of the generosity of the United States or of the humble gratitude of Native people. West succeeded in bringing together concerns from around the world and uniting American Indians with other indigenous communities and demonstrating how the 21st century could be a time of hope and inspiration.

Choosing a lawyer with Washington contacts, a professional who could work in the inner circles of government and with the modern fundraising community with sophisticated boards and powerful donors and with tribal leaders, was a challenge to the notion of what NMAI was going to be. West made it clear from the beginning that he was going to conduct himself and the process of the new national museum with high regard and value. He approached his directorship with same seriousness and latitude as anyone from the Louvre, the Prado or the Vatican Museum. He traveled in their world and forced them to make room for the director of a museum that would value American Indian concerns. All of this proceeded with the approval of the Smithsonian Institution and Congress, and it changed history.

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As a professional as well as a lawyer, West knew the territory of budgetary concerns and accountability. He balanced efforts and expenses as any executive does and took responsibility for managing his operations. Accusations that he did not know the legal or ethical limit of his efforts are challenges to his education and professionalism. The larger accusation that the Smithsonian, Congress, and Native governments were equally unprofessional turns this affair into one that tarnishes everyone connected to NMAI. Such a serious position needs powerful evidence or a good explanation or the accusations fall as simple smear and muckraking.

What the Post and other critics may actually achieve is a challenge to Native peoples daring to engage in a level of international statesmanship and diplomacy reserved up till now for the non-Native. West had the approval of Smithsonian and congressional leaders as he opened these doors as well as from Native people who greeted him in their communities, attended the planning sessions for the museum and sang his praises at the opening of NMAI in a public celebration on the Mall that was attended by thousands.

Despite this, the Post and other critics wish to cast a shadow over what everyone agrees is an immense success and one of the most popular institutions in the United States. Money was raised, buildings in three cities were built and outfitted to serve Native folks and scholars for a new century, and promises were kept. The process was transparent and supervised with great care, and NMAI was delivered as a success and model for others to follow. Despite all of this the accusations that West and his efforts somehow cheated the American taxpayer, no matter how much was raised and contributed to the vision he elicited from Native communities who then participated to realize a historic gain, is an attack against the integrity of American Indians personally and as a group. The United States has a long time and trillions of dollars to go before it can be said that American Indians have taken more than their fair share.

Paul Apodaca, Navajo/Mixton, is an associate professor at Chapman University. He was part of the team that won the 1985 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary with ''Broken Rainbow,'' documenting the Navajo-Hopi relocation program.