W. Richard West Jr.

West explains his mission to tell the compelling story of the American West and the people who created its history and shape the present and future.

W. Richard West brought a wealth of expertise to his post as president and chief executive officer of the Autry National Center of the American West. He's the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and spent 18 years overseeing its development, design, construction and growth as a leading institution. A citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Nation of Oklahoma and a Peace Chief of the Southern Cheyenne, West has a master’s degree in American history from Harvard and a J.D. from Stanford and spent decades in the legal arena, focusing much of his work on Native American and tribal issues.


Tavis: So how we approach honoring and displaying the heritage of indigenous and marginalized people in our nation’s museums can be mired in controversy. W. Richard West Jr. understands this all too well.

He was the founding director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, and is now the president and CEO of the Autry National Center, a museum here in Los Angeles which is dedicated to the history of the West.

He’s also served as a special counsel to many American Indian tribes and their efforts to deal with the federal government, and is the son of an acclaimed American Indian master artist, the late Walter Richard West Sr. Richard West Jr., I am honored, sir, to have you on this program.

W. Richard West Jr.: Thank you very much; I’m delighted to be here.

Tavis: I want to start by asking about your dad, because your dad, when you were very young, gave you an edict about which you have lived your life – you are Cheyenne, and don’t you ever forget it.

West: That’s just about exactly what he said. (Laughs) He said it very early, and it was very important to him because I think of the challenges he faced in being Cheyenne.

He grew up in a far different time, and in a harder time than I did. He was there to protect me. He was not protected in the same way when he was growing up that I was.

He came up through boarding schools, taken away from his parents when he was about four years old, and packed off to boarding schools for the next 20 years or so. So he had it tough, and he had to really fight hard to claim his heritage and to protect it.

Tavis: Besides verbally, audibly telling you that you should never forget your heritage and never lose sight of it, how did he encourage you, what did he expose you to that gave you a love for what you do, obviously very well?

West: Well, it was that he attended to our personal identity and our community identity. We grew up in Oklahoma. I have one younger brother, and both of us grew up with our family in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma was the last stopping place for the southern Cheyenne, who’d originally been in Colorado, Wyoming, that area. But they were removed to Oklahoma in the mid-19th century, and so he’d been born in Oklahoma, and he was born on the last agency while it was still reservation land, called Darlington, Oklahoma.

So we maintained very close ties with our community and our family on the Cheyenne side while I was growing up there in Oklahoma. So it was reasonably easy to do in that way. We were constantly surrounded by other family, participated in the ceremonial life of the Cheyenne in Oklahoma as we were growing up, and that’s what it takes to create that kind of identity.

Tavis: How, then, though, Richard, did this become the epicenter of your professional pursuits, though? It’s one thing to appreciate that heritage and to revel in that culture; it’s another thing to have spent, as you have now, a good part of your professional career making sure that the rest of us come to wrestle and appreciate that culture.

West: Well, I think it was this – my dad was unique in his generation in that he went to university, he went to college probably two or three generations ahead of most other native people of his generation, and that was unusual.

My dad was a studio-trained artist. That did not happen that frequently. He was a studio-trained artist in the late ’30s and early ’40s, and so he knew the value of education.

But really what he told my brother and me very young was that the Cheyennes were no longer a cultural island. They couldn’t expect to live that way anymore. We should persist and remain Cheyenne from the standpoint of what our community and personal identity was, but we had to know how to deal with the outside.

It also is metaphorically valuable in this way that my mother was not Cheyenne, she was white, and so she was an important part of our lives too. So my father really felt that we had to be Cheyenne, as you indicated, but at the same time we had to be able to cope with the outside.

If anything, we should really do our level best to make sure that in dealing with that outside world we did the best we could on behalf of the Cheyenne community.

Tavis: Tell me why it is – and I’m not naïve, of course, in asking this question – but why it is that most Americans are ignorant of, that is to say lacking the knowledge of – and not just knowledge, but the appreciation, much less the understanding and embrace of this part of American history? Why is there always the attempt, the effort to -?

West: Well, I would say it’s both quantitatives and geography.

Tavis: Okay.

West: It’s quantitatives because there are relatively few of us. Even now we are numerically a small minority of the American population, about 1/2 of 1 percent, so there is that.

In addition to that, beginning in the middle part of the 19th century there was every effort possible to remove native people from sight. By that I don’t just mean physically, I mean culturally.

Because the effort was to put us on reservations where we were physically separated, and then at the same time to wipe out the culture that really defined native communities to be what they were and had been historically.

If you’re successful at that, then you have wiped somebody out. Fortunately for us, they were not successful in doing that, and so we’re still here.

Tavis: So how did the Smithsonian then get convinced to make this a major project, and one that you basically – not basically; did, in fact, oversee and raised – oversaw, that is, and raised a ton of money to make happen in Washington.

West: Well, the timing was right. I will not at all attempt to claim that it was I who did all of this. It wasn’t. I happened to be at the right spot at the right time. I had been a Washington lawyer. I’m a lawyer by training. Came to the museum world as the second part of my career; the first part of it was as an attorney.

I’d been in Washington when the, I’d had contact with the Smithsonian Institution avocationally prior to my becoming the director of the museum. So I was known to the Smithsonian.

I had experience in Washington, which they wanted, I had raised money before for various reasons, I came out of the art side, if you will, of the native community simply because my dad was an artist and I had grown up around museums, even though trained as a lawyer.

It all kind of fit as far as the Smithsonian Institution was concerned, and for me, it definitely fit. I probably debated a nanosecond and I knew the minute I was contacted about the possibility of being the director of the NMAI that that is precisely what I wanted to do.

Tavis: What do you make of the fact – and I celebrate it on every possible level, and yet it is interesting to me, I think that’s the best word I can come up with at the moment, interesting to me, that this Native American museum is constructed before the African American museum. Now I say interesting because clearly, the Native Americans were here first.

So in terms of chronology, they ought to get their museum first.

West: Yeah.

Tavis: But there are so many more, to your earlier point, so many more African Americans in the country –

West: Yes, yeah.

Tavis: – and we’re just now at the point where they are under construction on an African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington. Why we, why are we always bringing up the rear?

West: Well, that’s an interesting question, and a very astute question. I think the reason is this – in some respects, notwithstanding what had been done to native peoples, which was not entirely different to what happened with African Americans in this country, nevertheless, American Indians were a slightly safer ethnic minority, if you will.

They occupied this very romantic position in the minds of many Americans, and it’s easy to do that because it kind of hides what the history really was, if you have this very romanticized conception of who American Indians are.

So that was part of the reason. The other attaches itself to Washington, D.C. The native people in the United States had a particularly potent political champion in the form of Senator Dan Inouye, who was a ranking member of the United States Senate. So that was one side of it.

The other side of it was that this collection became available, the collection which I saw as a teenager going to New York from Oklahoma became available because the trust that held it in New York was going belly-up, essentially. It needed support.

The Smithsonian Institution and Congress entered into an arrangement with that private trust that transferred that collection, which the then-head of the Smithsonian Institution considered a national collection by any definition to the Smithsonian, and that became the National Museum of the American Indian.

So it was kind of a confluence of a number of factors, and it just happened to be that the timing was right. In terms of the importance, culturally, from the standpoint of the United States and its own heritage, of course it should have been no different for the African American community than it was for the Native American community.

Tavis: How do you respond – first a quick follow-up. How significant, how massive in terms of artifacts is this, the collection that was used to start the museum?

West: It is massive. It was upwards of a million objects.

Tavis: Wow.

West: Probably about 800,000 objects, material objects in the college, and about 100,000 objects in the photographic archives. It was by any definition one of the two or three most significant collections of native cultural patrimony in the world, and it’s not just a collection from the United States, I would point out.

A third of the collection really comes from south of the border, namely Central America and South America, and another 2 or 3 percent of that collection of the National Museum of the American Indian came from the first nations of Canada.

So it was a hemispheric collection, and it established a very important fact, and that is that there is a cultural axis in the Americas that runs north to south and not just east to west.

Tavis: How do you respond to people, Richard, who say that this is part of what’s wrong with America, this compartmentalizing, this fractionalization of America, where the Native Americans have to have their museum and the Black folk have to have their museum.

There is obviously that sentiment that still exists in this country that we’re all Americans and that what you’re doing, by definition, is separatist, and we don’t need these institutions, particularly at the cost that we’re spending to erect these buildings. How do you respond to that critique?

West: Well, I think that it’s short-sighted to put it in that simple a form, because I think that what is richest about this country culturally is the fact that we have in this country, it’s built on it, an immense amount of cultural diversity.

Now not all of that diversity has been respected in some places as much as in others. In other words, diversity among European countries is one thing. If you get outside of Europe, you come to another thing when you’re talking about the United States.

But I think that for society to be whole, there has to be mutual respect for all of its cultural and ethnic components. So the 1980s, in my view, was a time, and the National Museum of the American Indian really comes from that, but it was a time when voices were stepping forward that had previously not been heard and had been suppressed as a matter of the heritage of this country.

In order for the country to make itself whole, you have to give voice to all of those elements and strands of the cultural fabric of this country. So I have always been a supporter of the fact that institutions like the National Museum of the American Indian and the African American Museum of History and Culture do exist, because they bring voices to the table that previously have not been heard.

Now what I also think should happen, however, is that once you get to that point and you have this mutuality of understanding, of cultural knowledge, of respect, then you’re, at least as far as the museum goes, prepared to do something different, and that’s actually what brought me to the Autry.

Tavis: I want to talk about (unintelligible) in just a second.

West: Yes.

Tavis: One of the questions, while we’re on this line of thinking, if I were nitpicking, and I am (laughter) –

West: You’re sitting in the right chair.

Tavis: Yeah. I could make the case to you, and I will, that the museum world is, quite frankly, no different than the world that we inhabit. That discrimination is real, that racism is real, that marginalization is real, that exploitation is real, that afterthoughtness is real, because it takes so long to again get the kind of appreciation for this culture.

Talk to me about your experience – on the one hand, you’re Cheyenne; on the other hand, as you mentioned, your mother is white.

So you’ve inhabited both of these worlds as a person of color and with that Caucasian background. Give me your honest assessment – not that you would give me anything else – but your honest assessment of how race, culture, gender, is still at play in the art world, in the museum world.

West: Well, it is. The story of the National Museum of the American Indian itself reflects that quite thoroughly. When you look at it, this was a collection that was put together and assembled by a very wealthy banker from New York.

It was essentially, in certain respects, a colonialist institution, in that this person expected native peoples and communities simply to die out. It was kind of a cultural reclamation project, if you will, to pull together the remnants of a civilization that was dying.

In his conception of it was definitely this concept of “otherness.” There is us, Western civilization, that will predominate, and then there are the rest, the others, who will simply be going away.

That was really at the root of many museums that collected the materials of other people at the end of the 19th century and the beginning part of the 20th century. So it was built on some premises that were highly, highly questionable.

Now what happened in the case of the NMAI and what was so wonderful is that the paradigm got turned on its head, in a certain respect, and you had Congress saying we want to create an institution that reverses that, and that in many ways is instinctively anti-colonialist.

Which is to say that it was to enlist the participation of native people in this institution. Our statue, which some at the time in the Department of Justice even thought might be unconstitutional, required that at least 50 percent of the board of trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian be American Indian. Then –

Tavis: Novel idea.

West: A novel idea. (Laughter) A novel idea indeed for a museum about Indians. Then they selected a Native American, me, as the founding director of it. So that began to shift, and so you see museums, and probably, as you say, doing it too slowly sometimes, sort of shifting from one place to another.

I really think, and my whole interest in museums in my career has been premised on the notion that museums actually should be proactive in promoting a resolution to these kinds of issues and should themselves be forums for a discussion that leads us past certain points that are not really great attributes of civilization in this country.

Tavis: What say you about whether or not the best way to enlighten, to empower, to educate fellow citizens to try to convince them to walk into the doors of an American Indian museum to try to convince them to walk through the doors of an African American History and Cultural Museum versus the Smithsonian or any other museum as a part of what they, as a part of the exhibitions that they put on display, weaving all of this history as a part of American history, because that’s exactly what it is.

West: Well, I think you should not – one should not be afraid to do both.

Tavis: Okay.

West: I think both are important.

Tavis: Okay.

West: Let me tell you how I would divide it up in my own mind. I think that the ethnic-specific museum is important when you are trying to bring multiple and diverse voices to the table, and I don’t care whether it’s a political discussion generally or whether it’s something that is happening in a museum.

But at the National Museum of the American Indian, I actually resisted the notion that at the Smithsonian somehow everything, art, politics, whatever the subject, relating to American Indians should be ghettoized in the National Museum of the American Indian.

My view was that you should have it both ways, and that culture was better off if you did. If you want to get the voices to the table, and it was difficult to do so, then don’t be afraid to create something like the National Museum of the American Indian or the African American Museum at the Smithsonian Institution.

But at the same time, don’t let that set of initiatives let you off the hook when you’re talking about the fact that those same subjects should be part of the menu of the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.

Tavis: So your career, this phase of your career starts in Washington at the Smithsonian, and now the Autry out here in the West is celebrating 25 years.

West: Yes.

Tavis: Tell me about that celebration and your work here on the West Coast now.

West: Well, I was thrilled to be able to come to the Autry. I had retired and I was living quite happily in retirement, and without going into the details of the story, I was approached about coming to the Autry, which I knew a little bit, because I had been brought aboard by their prior director, John Gray, a very distinguished museum director who’s now the director of the National Museum of American History.

I kid about switching seats. (Laughter) But he had asked me, when the Southwest museum collection, another very distinguished collection here in Los Angeles, it’s another of the great Native American collections, came into the Autry to sort of sit with him and talk about how that should be done.

So I knew something about the Autry.

My main reason for coming to the Autry is this: They have a wonderful legacy for the first 25 years – the dream of two very significant individuals in this community, Gene and Jackie Autry, and the importance of a very big subject, the American West.

There’s nothing more important to the history and culture of this country than the American West and what happened out here for all kinds of reasons – politically, economically, et cetera.

So it’s a big vision, it’s a big subject to begin with. What I saw in the Autry was the opportunity, which I would have pursued had I remained at the NMAI, but I figured 20 years of me at the NMAI was enough for them, for their own sake, (laughter) and felt that the Autry allowed us for the first time in this kind of setting, talking about the American West, to go beyond that situation where we were talking sort of about categories and verticalities of community.

The native community, the non-native community, the Chinese American community, African American, Latino/Latina, and to try to begin approaching these stories the way the mission of the Autry National Center says; namely, that we are here to tell all the stories of the American West.

That means it’s an inclusive endeavor, it means that there is a horizontal nature to what you’re doing. You’re finally trying to weave, as you said a moment ago, these stories together in ways where it is not somebody talking about another person, but it is a number of people, equal station, equal status, sitting at the table, talking about a particular subject.

That’s different, and that’s the beauty of the Autry. I saw the Autry as having a wonderful conception, this notion of convergence of culture, and maybe what I could do in my tenure at the Autry was try to figure out how we really began putting these stories on the ground and giving that conception and that noble goal tread as we went forward.

Tavis: So how does that show itself in the exhibitions that you have out for this 25th anniversary?

West: Well, we have a couple that I think put that story right on the road as far as I’m concerned. The first, which opened very recently, just within the past month or so, is Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic, which I find does exactly what I’m talking about.

Sometimes when we talk about or discuss ethnically specific or ethnically community specific stories, it’s kind of an internal presentation. In other words, we’re – which is important. We’re sort of telling it from the inside-out.

Interestingly enough, the Jewish community in Los Angeles is somewhat unique as compared to Jewish communities I know on the East Coast in New York. This community did not, the Jewish community in L.A., even though it was comprised of immigrants, some, at the time, did not for the most part enter the country through Ellis Island.

These were established businessmen who came from elsewhere, and from the very get-go in Los Angeles, with the gold rush in the mid-19th century began being proprietors and agents of commerce here in the Los Angeles area.

They had an immense impact. So this exhibit, Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic, is really about the touch points between that community and other communities in this area.

See, that to me is the marvel of the West, because that has always been the case, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad; sometimes in conflict, but sometimes in harmony. Those are important stories to tell because they’re instructive for the future.

Now the second exhibit that I would mention is Art of the West. This exhibit is an effort, again, to tell those stories in a horizontal fashion, which is to say we’ve taken object from all quarters of this immense collection of ours and actually organized them around themes that everybody who was in the West at that time talked about.

Movement and migration, religion and ceremony and landscape, which is important to all, and that’s a unique way of organizing that kind of material, and yet it lets you get at very big stories, and as I said, it’s instructive for our future in this area, in the West, in Los Angeles, in this region, because those are all the elements that will make up the future of this region.

Tavis: I tease my friends all the time on the East Coast there, and I love the East Coast, but sometimes I think they think – yeah, I’m talking to y’all – I think y’all think (laughter) that art and culture are a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Eastern seaboard.

That we have nothing West of the Mississippi, but we got some good stuff out here, and when you come West, you might want to check out the Autry, now celebrating 25 years. Its leader is W. Richard West Jr., and I’m excited about going to see this American West exhibit, so you will see me very shortly.

West: Good. Thank you very much.

Tavis: Good to have you on. Thank you for your work.

West: Not at all, thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: July 6, 2013 at 7:26 pm