Skip to main content

Leaders guide museum with humble yet historic partnership

  • Author:
  • Updated:

WASHINGTON - One secret to the success of the National Museum of the
American Indian may well be the emblematic partnership of its top two
officials, Director W. Richard West Jr., and Deputy Director Douglas

West, Cheyenne, has credentials throughout Indian country, which also
respected his father as an illustrator of ... dances. Evelyn, a 30-year
veteran of the Smithsonian Institution system, has an unsurpassed knowledge
of the byways and procedures of that empire on the National Mall. Together,
as Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside, they pulled off one of the most difficult
bureaucratic feats in modern Washington, in the face of some skepticism.

"It was from my standpoint an absolutely perfect combination and indeed, I
would say, a very necessary one," West told Indian Country Today.

West described his own role as Mr. Outside:

"I have always felt that the key skill set I could bring to the museum
during the developmental period was leadership, establishing the vision,
the philosophy and vision of the museum and trying to achieve that vision,
and a lot of that had to do with external relationships. It had to do most
importantly with our relationship with Native peoples themselves."

At the same time, the museum needed strong operational leadership. As West
observed, it was not only a development project, leading to the building on
the Mall, it was a complicated ongoing institution, with an exhibition
center in New York and a research facility in Suitland, Md. And it was
engaged in the arduous task of preserving, tagging and moving the world's
largest collection of Native objects, some 800,000, over 250 miles.

"That meant the director of the institution needed someone like Doug
Evelyn," said West. "Doug Evelyn is a wonderful and probably far too modest
individual about his professional standing and accomplishments here at the
Smithsonian." Evelyn previously served as deputy director for the National
Portrait Gallery and the Museum of American History.

"This wasn't like hiring an excellent operations guy who had never set foot
in the Smithsonian," said West. "This guy knew every path in this place."

Evelyn modestly acknowledges his back-room work. "I've had one of the
inside roles," he told ICT, "but I've had a lot of help with it."

West gave as a specific example of their partnership Evelyn's mastery of
the budget process.

"He and I kind of divided it up internally the same way we divided it up
externally, which is to say, I dealt with people in the Smithsonian about
the programmatic aspects of the museum, the design of our program, the
mission of the museum, the position of the Native voice, establishing the
services department to make sure we had an ongoing and thoughtful
relationship with the Native community throughout the hemisphere. His job
was to husband the material resources and the human resources within the
Smithsonian to get that done. And there was no one alive at this point who
knows more within the Smithsonian about the budget process."

Evelyn for his part recounted how West's fundraising and the generosity of
several Indian tribes came into play at crucial moments. The Mashantucket
Pequot Tribal Nation, the Mohegan Indian Tribe in Connecticut and the
Oneida Indian Nation of New York each donated $10 million when the money
was most needed. Evelyn said that the original legislation required that
the NMAI raise one-third of its total budget from private sources. By the
mid-90s it needed contributions of $37 million. "The Mashantucket
contribution put us over the top," said Evelyn.

By the end of the decade, the cost estimates for the building on the Mall
had nearly doubled. "We had to go out for a second round," said Evelyn.
This time, the Mohegans and the Oneidas stepped forward. With these large
donations and a loyal contributor list of 250,000 people, the NMAI far
exceeded its required one-third in matching funds.

Of a total project cost of $219 million, said Evelyn, federal funding
provided $119 million and $100 million came from outside sources. "A large
block came from Native sources," he said. "Thirty-five percent of the
private funding came from Indian tribes."

This fund-raising achievement reflects the NMAI's success in presenting
itself as a "first-person" voice for the First Nations, a success that owes
a great deal to the large amount of time spent in consultation with Native
communities. In the formative years from 1991 to '93, West held about 30
meetings with tribes and other interested people.

West said he knew he had a barrier of suspicion to overcome. "Frankly,
Native people I think as an historical matter have had something of an
almost love-hate, at best bittersweet relationship with the Smithsonian,"
he said. "So there was a lot to overcome in that way to bring them into our
work in the way we wanted to."

The NMAI leadership also had to deal with some residual skepticism within
the Smithsonian. "I will say I don't think anybody wished us ill," said
West, "but I think a number of people throughout the Smithsonian looked at
this project as being incredibly ambitious. I think they were concerned
whether we would actually succeed in accomplishing what we said we would.

"I'm happy to say I think we have, and I think we've made believers out of
everyone in the Smithsonian in that regard."

When Evelyn was asked to evaluate the degree of difficulty of the NMAI
project, he paused, and then counted through the construction of the
Smithsonian museums that line the Mall. "I would have to say," he
concluded, "that in our time this has to be the biggest project."