During my 17 years as director of the National Museum of the American Indian, I welcomed and learned from criticism, whether gentle or harsh. But nothing prepared me for the recent gossip passing for investigative journalism at The Washington Post and editorials in Indian Country Today. Real Indian country deserves better than rumor-mongering and character assassination, and so do I.
Allegations, which are false, are that my travel was ''excessive'' and ''lavish,'' as I was ''eating and slumbering first-class on the federal dime.'' Provocative, undocumented adjectives make for good reading in tabloids, but should not be in the Post or ICT. Both should be ashamed of themselves.
The truth is that these papers brazenly editorialized their way to sensationalized mischaracterizations of my travel for NMAI. They fabricated or implied ''facts'' that never existed. They persisted in their fantasies, even when given ample opportunity to correct them.
So let's discuss the facts and my reasons for travel, starting with what they asserted and what are the facts.
1. ''First class transportation,'' insinuating first class airfare. A complete fabrication. Not a dime of NMAI funds was spent on first class airfare during my directorship. The Post was corrected by the Smithsonian and me prior to its first article, but still printed the untruth.
2. ''Business class transportation,'' implying that I charged business class routinely. Incorrect again. I charged for business class only on long-haul international trips. Federal laws and regulations permit business class travel on trips over a specified length.
3. ''First class trains.'' Not a dime of NMAI funds was spent on such transportation, according to NMAI documents, which the papers have. If the Post or its cohorts have contrary information, they should source it and quit hiding behind leaked documents and innuendo.
4. ''Excessive travel'' - $250,000 over 4-1/2 years, from January 2003 to June 2007. This averages $55,556 per year, and represents on average only .0016 of NMAI's total annual budget. Travel was paid for primarily from privately raised funds ($51 million was raised during this period), not from federal appropriations. The Post's calculations and its printed story include at least one trip that never happened at all (Brasilia). The Post also failed to account for tens of thousands of dollars of reimbursements and travel offsets from third parties - Croatia (Croatian American Society), Australia (Australian National University), New Zealand (New Zealand government) and Paris (International Council of Museums), for example.
5. ''Gala [retirement] dinner.'' The dinner paid for itself, plus raised $40,000 for NMAI's traveling exhibitions fund. No trust monies were involved except $1,000 to cover required security. Tribal money was given for the specific purpose of the dinner (by the Seneca Nation of Indians, for example).
6. ''Bi-coastal cocktail receptions.'' D.C. and L.A. receptions were routine events hosted for NMAI members. NMAI had not hosted one in L.A. for seven years. The two receptions together netted $10,000 for NMAI's traveling exhibitions fund.
7. ''Expenses more than $1,000/night in New York - often.'' Travel documents reveal no case where hotel and per diem expenses in NYC exceeded $1,000 per night, let alone ''often.'' On one 2007 trip, when the cheapest hotel available was $495 for the Holiday Inn in Brooklyn, I used personal hotel benefits to stay less expensively. In fact, I did this or paid part of hotel costs personally on numerous occasions. My trips were in connection with the running of NMAI's museum in N.Y. The Post makes no mention of the many times in 17 years I took the first shuttle to N.Y. and the last to D.C. on day trips to avoid staying overnight, making for many 18-hour days.
8. Smithsonian charged for trips to board meetings. The Smithsonian was not charged for board work. Had the Post bothered to check with the Ford Foundation or Stanford University, it would have found that each covered all expenses associated with its board meetings.
9. ''The Portrait.'' The portrait was not commissioned at my request. The project was managed by NMAI external affairs as a hoped-for first portrait in a series of NMAI director portraits - not just mine. Trustees were supportive of the project, two trustee dissents notwithstanding. The portrait was paid for with privately raised, not federal dollars.
Why I traveled is an essential backdrop deliberately ignored by the Post and ICT. First, Congress mandated NMAI to have a ''new'' collaboration with Indian country. During the early 1990s, the NMAI conducted scores of consultations with Native peoples throughout the Americas - requiring travel by others and myself. In fact, the very shape and structure of the museum came from these consultations and was not ''idiosyncratically'' mine, as the Post asserts.
Second, NMAI had few if any precedents, and we had to look hard and far - quite literally - for models. The most innovative institutions representing indigenous peoples were in New Zealand and Australia - the National Museum of New Zealand and the Maori, the National Museum of Australia, and the Museums of Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia concerning Aboriginal peoples. NMAI consulted with them, requiring travel.
Third, NMAI became a model for the global museum community. This demanded travel. My board chairmanship of the American Association of Museums and vice presidency of the International Council of Museums, based in Paris, were both direct outgrowths of NMAI's importance as a new museological model. ICOM, and its legal affairs and ethics committees which I serve on, do important work encouraging repatriation of (and stopping trafficking in) indigenous cultural property.
Finally, the ever important issue of fund-raising. NMAI would not be here without it. The NMAI raised privately more than $155 million - $51 million in the period covered by the Post article. The Oneida, Mashantucket Pequot, Mohegan, Northern Ute and Cow Creek nations and others would not have gifted the total of $35 million to a director sitting at his desk in D.C. and failing to raise monies by coming to Indian country.
I traveled as required by the job I had to do. The Post's ''days away'' analysis of my travel is myopic and insulting. Such travel translates into long hours in airports and on planes - as well as immense sacrifices by and burdens on the family I love. I deeply resent the papers' revisionist history and ill-founded self-righteousness. I was not on shopping sprees - I was doing the work of NMAI, and lots of it.
As I reflect on the ''news'' of the past two weeks that has so dismayed my colleagues and family, I am genuinely saddened that an analysis of my directorship could be stated in the terms that appeared in either paper. I think the tack is deeply objectionable and, frankly, offensive to the success of NMAI and all who contributed to that success.
But in the end, I have a certain peace about it all, for me and, most important, for Indian country. When all the destructive chattering has ceased, the NMAI will still be there for all of us and our future generations on the National Mall, quietly keeping watch and continuing to inspire. It is that vision that matters most to me - and to Indian country.
W. Richard West Jr. served as founding director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian from 1990 - 2007.