There has been a lot of talk about The Washington Post's front-page story (Dec. 28, 2007) about W. Richard West Jr., the founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian. My term on the board of trustees of the museum ends in December 2008 and now I would like to have my say.
As president of USET for 12 years, I traveled more miles on airplanes and spent more hours in airports than I care to remember. What I will always remember, however, are my travels with Rick West to various Indian reservations to promote the dream of a museum dedicated to American Indians in Washington, D.C. - a dream that is now a reality to the seventh generation because of his tireless work.
It is small wonder that each year, fewer qualified people are willing to join the ranks of the public sector. We live in a time when years of work and dedication can be smeared in the seconds it takes to send an e-mail. The recent portrait painted of Mr. West, both real and metaphorical, says a lot about an age where it is so easy to tear down and ever harder to build things up.
Mr. West was tasked to do what so many talked about, but could not or would not - raise enough money to make NMAI an actual structure on the National Mall. Eight years and some $180 million later (that's the total amount of monies raised under his tenure), it is a reality. Now we have the luxury to dissect the business and personal charges of Mr. West's travels. Is $75 for a bottle of wine at dinner justifiable? What if the dinner led to a million-dollar gift? To achieve a return of $155 million, is $55,556 a year a reasonable expense? It sounds more sinister when it's presented as $250,000 for travel over four years, as the Washington Post published, doesn't it.
Welcome to Washington. Anything can be made to look corrupt or criminal, depending on how it is presented. Mr. West knows and was at the same law firm as his successor. Must be cronyism. Until you learn that Mr. West was not on the search committee and did not do the hiring.
During his 17 years as director of NMAI, Mr. West worked and traveled tirelessly to raise money and respect for a new museum. He was the voice and image of Indian country to the world. As former chairman of the Development Committee at NMAI, I know the pressures he faced. To go back now and dissect his travels is a disservice to all, especially when it is based more on innuendo and less on facts. I know because I was there. I am completing my sixth and final year of my second term on the museum's board of trustees. Since 2002, I can attest to the leadership Mr. West demonstrated and can tell you we were not the easiest board to please.
Mr. West was hired to collaborate with Indian country, be a model for museums around the world, and raise money. I also know all too well that this cannot be done from behind a desk. Relationships needed to be built and maintained, and for 17 years they demanded Mr. West's time and travel away from his home and family. It is not fair or necessary to criticize him now, especially when the facts are wrong, as Mr. West has detailed in his recent article in Indian Country Today [Vol. 27, Iss. 32].
Let me correct some of the Post's errors. Mr. West did not commission a portrait of himself. The museum did, as the first portrait in a series of NMAI directors, and the majority of trustees were supportive. In addition, the portrait was paid for with money that was privately raised. Mr. West did not spend lavishly on a farewell dinner for himself. The event paid for itself and $40,000 was raised for the museum. Only $1,000 of trust monies were used to cover the required security. Mr. West did not use museum money to purchase first-class airfare, period.
So why now? What motivates a national newspaper like The Washington Post to drive a story like this? I'm not a journalist, but isn't it interesting that while billions of dollars are missing in Iraq and oil companies in this country are seeing record profits, a story disparaging Mr. West and NMAI is given the front page - all because, as the Post alleges, he traveled in luxury. Nothing could be further from the truth. I hope Indian country looks to the character and accomplishments of Mr. West and encourages The Washington Post reporters to visit the museum and learn that we are not easily fooled.
Keller George is the Wolf Clan representative to the Oneida Indian Nation of New York's Men's Council. He is a member of the NMAI board of trustees and served as president of USET from 1994 - 2006.