Thirty years ago, I first visited the Smithsonian Institution as a member of the Comanche Nation and human rights activists. In the basement, among the extinct animals of North America haplessly tucked away, was a small collection of American Indian ''artifacts.'' Despair and disbelief overwhelmed me as I witnessed this unapologetic display of institutionalized racism. My culture was shelved away somewhere between a mastodon tooth and a mammoth tusk. I was an afterthought in the most prominent museum institution in the world. Even Americans thought I was extinct.
Thirty years ago, I was humiliated while advocating for the hiring of two American Indians by the Smithsonian, credibility and character was questioned in some of the most demeaning ways. The next challenge was recognizing American Indian ''crafts'' as legitimate art and getting artists their well deserved respect.
Today, inside the National Museum of the American Indian is the largest collection of American Indian Art and knowledge in the world. And for the last 17 years, leading the way to champion this museum has been Rick West.
The recent unsubstantiated allegations published in newspapers around the nation regarding Mr. West give me the same sense of despair and disbelief I felt in the days of my apparent nonexistence. I thought we had moved past this sort of ignorant racism.
Mr. West has been a respected colleague and devoted friend of mine for decades. He should be lauded for his accomplishments.
I'm honoring the nearly $165 million for the museum, more than double what Mr. West was charged with, an accomplishment making him one of the most recognized American Indians in the world.
I'm honoring American Indian participation in La Biennale, in Venice, one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world, secured by Mr. West.
I'm honoring the first American Indian chairman of the American Association of Museums, changing forever how people in the field view American Indians and how we should be represented in museums.
''Racist'' is not a word I like to use. But what am I to think when others cannot accept the idea of an American Indian becoming an international force in the museum world? It is a shame that an American Indian participating in an international arena, wearing designer suits, and traveling the world is an anomaly. Mr. West did what needed to be done in order for American Indian art to be taken seriously. His travel is a statement that American Indians shouldn't be trapped to the confines of the American West or relegated to an afterthought of American history.
Mr. West he did his job far better than anyone could have imagined. He wore buckskin and used Cheyenne values to garner the trust and support of tribes. He wore designer suits and used prestigious degrees to demand international attention. Through all of this he remained the same person, with the same integrity - integrity he instilled in all of his work and which shines in the accomplishment of the greatest statement of American Indian culture we have ever seen.
- La Donna Harris
LaDonna Harris, Comanche Nation, is the founder and president of Americans for Indian Opportunity. She serves on the National Council of the National Museum of the American Indian.