WASHINGTON – W. Rick West Jr., 63, director of the National Museum of the American Indian for its formative last 17 years, told its board of directors and staff on Oct. 26 that he would resign after a year of transition.
His letter of resignation, submitted to an afternoon board meeting, is effective November 2007.
“I do value time,” he told Indian Country Today. “I would like to have more flexibility in how I use my time.”
West, Southern Cheyenne, served as NMAI director since it was authorized by Congress in 1990 as a unit of the Smithsonian Institution. He supervised the opening of its three main facilities, the Gustav Heye Center in New York City in 1994; the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Md., in 1999; and the museum on the National Mall in Washington in 2004.
Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small said, “The National Museum of the American Indian has risen to international prominence, thanks to Rick West’s steadfast dedication, tireless drive and inspired leadership as founding director. He started with an idea and turned it into a reality. The Smithsonian Institution, the American people and visitors from around the world have benefited greatly from his talents, creativity and wisdom. We’ll be forever grateful to him for all that he’s done.”
West said in his resignation letter, “Now is the time for the museum to have new leadership, as it embarks on the second phase of its journey. My resignation next year will enable me to take on new special projects and pursue interests that I have yet to explore.”
He said he was not yet sure whether he would accept another “day job,” although he intended to remain active in Indian affairs.
He said he took pride in having established “a very different museological style” at the NMAI. It was not just a collection of objects, he said, “but much more a cultural center for a living, breathing community.”
This vision, he said, was especially significant at the least public of the NMAI’s units, the Cultural Resources Center, which offers a space for tribes to conduct ceremonies with those of their sacred objects it houses.
He singled out as a high point the opening week of the NMAI building on the National Mall in September 2004. “Who has ever seen 25,000 Natives come to Washington for one single event?” he said.
A low point in his tenure, conversely, might be the bitter dispute during construction of the building that led to the dismissal of its Native architect, Douglas Cardinal.
West was born in San Bernardino, Calif., and grew up in Muskogee, Okla., a member of the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma. West graduated magna cum laude from the University of Redlands in California in 1965. He received a master’s degree from Harvard in 1968 and his doctor of jurisprudence from the Stanford University School of Law in 1971.
Before becoming NMAI director, he practiced law at the Indian-owned law firm of Gover, Stetson, Williams & West, P.C., in Albuquerque, N.M. Before that, he was a partner in the Washington office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. He served as counsel to numerous tribes and Indian organizations, representing clients in federal, state and tribal courts and before federal agencies and Congress.
He served as chair of the board for the American Association of Museums, the nation’s only national membership organization representing all types of museums and museum professionals, from 1998 – 2000.