West on the West: ‘Every voice should be at the table’



W. Richard West holds even deeper connections to the American West than his surname suggests.

Fluent in American history, culture, art and law — with an especial interest in the nation’s indigenous peoples — West is, in every sense of the term, a Renaissance man. To him, all knowledge concerning American history is distilled through one vital vehicle: the museum.

In a lecture titled “Museums of the American West in the 21st Century: Transformational Journeys in Interpretation,” West will describe the development of these institutions paralleled with particular attention to the history and experiences of America’s original frontier. West will embark on this westward expedition at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater.

West, a citizen and peace chief of the Southern Cheyenne, speaks from firsthand experience of native culture and history in relation to the American West. Although born in California, he grew up in Oklahoma where the Cheyenne tribe is located.

“One of the reasons my father had us move back to Oklahoma was to make sure my brother and I could grow up close to the Cheyenne community,” West said. “We lived it, just as he lived it. We grew up in it, and we remain close to it.”

West’s father, a renowned Cheyenne painter, instilled a love for native art and culture in his sons at a young age. His mother, who hailed from Scottish heritage, imparted a connection to non-Native American culture within the family.

“My mother and father believed that we had to protect, preserve, and perpetuate our Cheyenne-ness,” West said. “But, they also realized the Cheyenne community would no longer be a cultural island. Having parents that understood each other’s culture very well was a great advantage to my brother and me. Both of us have always tried to position ourselves at a meeting point between native culture and non-native culture.”

Over the course of his career, West has always made this “meeting place” his ultimate destination. As a lawyer, West represented tribal and non-tribal organizations to multiple courts. He served as the founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian until his retirement from the position in 2007. Today, he serves as the president and CEO of the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.

West uses his experience at both the NMAI and the Autry Center to determine the past, present and future of education and preservation of American history and culture. He recognizes that both institutions are “necessary to the national museum community” but also share an array of similarities and differences.

“I consider the NMAI an outgrowth of the multiculturalism movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a number of diverse cultural communities were trying to make their voices heard in a society where they were seldom heard, quite frankly,” West said.

As an ethnic-specific museum, the NMAI asserted that those who had roots in a certain culture were more credible to speak and teach about that culture.

“The NMAI was an effort to say native people, themselves, know something about their own culture and art,” West said. “Because the knowledge that the native people carry is real, it’s worth the public learning from their lips.”

Whereas West explains the NMAI’s mission as vertical, telling the stories of Native Americans “from the inside out,” the Autry National Center’s undertaking is more horizontal.

“The Autry Center’s mission is to tell all the stories of the American West,” he said. “We have to cut across the stories. We have to interweave the stories. It’s not so much about multiculturalism as it is about ‘interculturalism.’ ”

Although West considers his tenure as director of the NMAI his crowning achievement thus far, he deems the Autry Center as “the next step.” With these multiple American experiences and voices, West believes the center can articulate the history of the West in an interwoven and intercultural way.

“The creation of the NMAI was really a metaphor for the arrival of native people as a culture, and arts matter in the consciousness of the country,” West said. “But, the way we learn best about what has happened, what is happening now and what may be likely to happen in the future, is to make the exercise of interpreting and representing that history and experience as inclusive and possible. Every voice should be at the table.”