West: Museums serve as ‘cultural authorities’ on the West

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
W. Richard West Jr., president and CEO of the Autry National Center of the American West, speaks during the morning lecture Wednesday in the Amphitheater.

Native Americans have a far greater geographical reach than the American West, W. Richard West said in the Amphitheater on Wednesday. But they have served as an “undeniably potent originating element” in the canvas of the West, making their history, art and culture a dynamic and complicated subject for museums to represent.

West, himself a citizen and peace chief of the Southern Cheyenne, should know.

He was the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian for nearly two decades, and currently serves as the president and CEO of the Autry National Center, a Los Angeles museum dedicated to “[exploring] the stories of the diverse peoples of the American West.”

During his 10:45 a.m. lecture, West said museums are central in presenting and interpreting the American West as representational institutions of history, culture and art. His was the third lecture in Week Five’s theme of “The American West.”

“Their methodologies of interpretation have everything to do with how we see and understand more perfectly the American West in all its complexity and multiple truths,” he said.

The establishment of NMAI was provided for in an act passed by Congress in 1989, West said, amid a movement in the U.S. toward multiculturalism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ethnic-specific museums, he said, were well aligned with this movement, encouraging and empowering cultural authenticity. NMAI allowed for the diminution of established, authoritative voices, and made room for the inclusion of indigenous peoples’ voices.

Some museum critics saw such “culturally permissive” museums as intellectually unknowledgeable, a perspective that West discredited.

“Museums have become changed and far better places,” he said, as a result of this widened sense of cultural authority.

In 2012, West joined the Autry, which he identified as part of a “third wave” after NMAI’s first two steps as a colonial, then anti-colonial institution. As an ethnic-specific museum, he said, NMAI is a “supreme exemplar” of a categorical, or vertical cultural institution. The Autry goes one step further to present a horizontal — rather than vertical — model of cultural interpretation and representation, interweaving stories that are not only multicultural, but intercultural.

“Culture interpreted in this way addresses the subject in the manner it was actually lived,” West said. “We have all lived together for the better part of five centuries — not culturally separate and, instead, with full-bore interactivity, good or bad, for the entire period.”

This approach also allows for the exploration of the interstitial areas of cultural history, where sit “multiple insights and ‘truths’ that not only are generally worth knowing, but, more specifically, inform museum audiences far more fully and accurately,” West said.

West cited three current exhibits at the Autry as examples of the museum’s intercultural, horizontal approach. The first, “Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork,” documents native cultural resistance by displaying a “visually coded language” that American Indian artists have used to hold fast to values, traditions, spiritual practices, cosmology and history, he said.

“Art of the West,” he said, is anti-canonical in its approach, shirking any sense of chronology and leaving out Western hierarchies that divide craft from low art and high art. It features work by Native and non-Native artists, including Anglo-Americans and Hmong-Americans.

“Route 66: The Road and the Romance,” addresses what West called the American “Mother Road,” glossy Americana and racist underbelly alike. He recalled his own experiences traveling Route 66 as a child, including being turned away from a motel in New Mexico as a teenager with his family after the front-desk clerk saw his Cheyenne father.

That underbelly, ugly and tense as it may be, defines the experience of the American West, West said. And museums about the West must continue to listen to a wide range of voices to present it. More than palaces of collectibles or temples in which to learn from a single established authority, he said, a museum can be a community center, a forum, and “a safety zone for unsafe ideas.”

Such civic and social spaces are lacking in the U.S., he said.

“The church is less such a space than it was historically,” West said. “The United States Congress, as the steward of such discourse and consideration, has become almost tragically laughable.”

West thinks that museums can fill that gap.

“In my view and experience, museums as counterpoint to that trend, although not able to do everything, can do something and a very important something,” he said.


Q: Please address native peoples asking museums to return artifacts to them, especially those to be considered sacred.

A: The question actually relates to the matter of repatriation. By federal law, museums — almost all museums in the United States at this point — are required by law to return upon request and after application certain kinds of material to Native communities. The categories of material include human remains, funerary materials, as well as sacred objects and cultural patrimony. The authorizing legislation for the National Museum of the American Indian actually included as the other half of the legislation a repatriation legislation that applied to the Smithsonian Institution and then subsequently, very quickly, in 1990 the NAGPA legislation, the Native American Graves Protection Act was passed, which required the same thing. When I became the director in 1990, the entire museum community was in a complete state of chaos about this requirement that had been imposed, fearing that it would mean the end of collections in museums. A lot of museum people could hear the rumble of 18-wheelers at Back Bay doors as all this stuff was being hauled away. Well, I’m happy to say that 25 years later that is not what happened. What did happen is this, which I think has been a great boon and benefit to museums — including the National Museum of the American Indian and the Autry National Museum of the American West — and it is this: Our collections have not been decimated. Certain objects, which honestly should never have been in museums to begin with, have been returned and that includes tens of thousands of objects that are human remains, funerary materials, sacred objects or cultural patrimony. And why do I, as a museum director, think that that is a good thing and not to be feared? And that is because I think most museums have an obligation and a responsibility to treat native life as something that is a phenomenon, a cultural phenomenon across all time that has a deep past right up to the present and into the future. And if a museum director’s objective, in part, is to make sure that we are able to document contemporary native life then it’s best that they have those objects in their hands, including sacred materials and cultural patrimony that are at the sore of how they maintain cultural continuity into the future. So I think it is in our interest actually to do that. And the second factor I would point out is that museums have learned far more about their collections because of repatriation. Because even beyond those objects that have been required to be returned under the repatriation laws, we have been told volumes of information and authoritative knowledge about the objects that sit in our collections and that are not subject to being returned by the native communities and people who have visited us. So I think it’s been a complete boon, quite frankly to the generation of knowledge and to the future of museums that handle materials relating to native peoples.

Q: Richard, it was impossible to represent most tribes at the Smithsonian Museum. How did you choose the ones that would get a voice?

A: Well yes, it is a complicated matter. There are over 500 federally recognized Native communities here in the United States, there are hundreds more throughout South America and the first nations in Canada, and so it was a complicated task. One of the first questions that was always asked of me when I was speaking at occasions like this when I was the director of the NMAI was, isn’t that a big problem for you? Etc. But it was not, quite frankly. We tried to make sure that we touched all sectors of the Americas, actually. And to give you an example, there were, at the time that the museum opened in 2004, exhibits that drew on 12 different Native communities here in the United States, some eight that were Latin American, four more were from Canada. So we tried to have geographic spread in what we did as well as contrasting cultures in the native community because they vary greatly, linguistically and in terms of traditions and practices. And quite frankly, native people were the first to understand that not all of them could be on the floors of the exhibit halls of the National Museum of American Indian at once. They were grateful to be on the National Mall at all, as they deservedly should have been, and much sooner than they were, but they understood that it would take time to do that so the answer to the question is we wanted some representational pattern geographically of what was in the Americas and we also wanted to reflect the great diversity of what is native America in the Americas at the same time that we showed that there were transcendent themes that bound Native American communities together. How they looked at life, how they practiced spirituality and religion, etc. And so it was this unity that was remarkable while at the same time being based on great diversity, and that’s what we tried to reflect at the NMAI.

Q: A lot of interest in knowing more about the Autry from a budget and curatorial perspective. Is a horizontally focused museum like the Autry difficult to run because of the need of so many area curators, so many areas curators have to cover, and what is your new acquisitions approach for the 21st century?

A: That must have been by a museum person because I can hear that voice coming to me. It is complicated. It is complicated and the curatorial staff of the Autry National Center of the American West is not large, but it does kind of touch different fields that are valuable. There are anthropologists, there are historians, there are art historians, and there are archeologists on our staff. So we have tried to touch those areas including authoritative voices that come out of the native community itself. We have community scholars that we work with at the Autry National Center of the American West just as we did at the National Museum of the American Indian. So you’re right. It is complicated, but at the same time it’s slightly generational, which is to say that if you work with curators — and blessedly I do — not that I have anything against age, given my own age, but if you’re working with curators, whether they’re art historians, anthropologists, archaeologists or historians that are under 40 or at least under 45, then you are dealing with a body of people who as a matter of curating things, are much more accustomed and comfortable with interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary work to begin with. So we are blessed with the fact that the academy that trains many of the curators that are coming to us also approaches the study of things like native culture in this fashion so we are able to do it I think relatively easily and I have a number of talented curators who are very familiar with one another and the disciplines of other curators who surround them and they are able to translate that into wonderful exhibits that sit on the floor. And I’m sorry what was the second half of the question?

Q: Question about the history and how the Autry is sustained and your acquisition’s approach to the 21st century.

A: I would say that, from an acquisitions standpoint, the challenge that most museums face — and we have addressed it directly in our collections policy — is to make sure that you keep collecting, which is to say that nothing no subject we touch is in a state of passive inertia. Nothing is just sitting there. It is all changing. The West, if anything, has always been historically and now a hugely dynamic place. That’s what I love about the West, actually, as compared to having been in Washington, D.C., for 40 years, is that there is some sense of forward movement, forward look, hope, possibility, all of those things that are indeed part of the spirit of the West at its very best. And so I think that that is what we are focused on whether it’s native material, or other historical objects, we are focused on making sure that we keep our eyes on the present and the future in terms of what we collect that serves as the basis for all of our exhibits and all of our programming.

Q: Curiosity and confusion about nomenclature. I thought Indians were now referred to as Native Americans? What’s appropriate?

A: I usually time these by how fast that question comes up. I want to know where it was in your pile over there. Yes, here’s how I would answer that and it’s as follows. First of all, I don’t care about either term as much as I care about the fact that people know where I come from. I am Tsitsistas. In Cheyenne, it means “the people,” and that’s what we called ourselves. And that’s the way most native people will identify themselves accurately is by reference to their own community, so we’re not tangled up in either American Indian or Native American. But just as far as those two terms go, there’s no question that American Indian is, historically, rather misleading. It basically only shows that Columbus was lost when he came over here. And I do know that as a political matter, a matter of political correctness, Native American was intended to sort of get beyond that historical confusion on Columbus’s part. But the fact is that Native American is subject to its own set of ambiguities. In one sense, my guess is that virtually everybody in this room is a native American, which is to say that you were born in the United States you are native to America. And so it has its own confusions and so the way I answer it is by saying that, I think, from a Native person’s standpoint, we think first of our own community and where we come from and call ourselves by reference to that community and at the NMAI, the term that we use that was really probably the most universal given that we represented the entire hemisphere, all of the Americas, was the term Native Peoples and the reason that worked is because American Indian for example doesn’t work at all outside of the United States. In fact, in much of Latin America, el indio is considered an absolutely pejorative term and they prefer indígena, or indigenous person. So the one umbrella term that probably avoided most of the pitfalls of that kind of nomenclature was simply referring to native peoples, whether they were from North America or South America.

Q: Today, you’ve talked about the temples that we call museums, but cities also have temples known as football stadiums. You expected these questions I’m sure. What is your take on the efforts to have the Washington football team change its name?

A: My answer is very simple. I always preface it by saying — I had to at the Smithsonian — by saying these are my personal views. I’m not making a statement on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution, nor am I on behalf of the Autry National Center. It’s a very simple answer. Dan Snyder should get over it and move on. I think that should be a very simple matter, and I think eventually it will come to that. I mean he made this — which I found, candidly, slightly insulting  — soiree into the Native community by giving certain kinds of foundation grants in the Native community as an effort to reach out to Native America. I mean that’s a duck. That’s a duck and a dodge. He’s still not dealing with the major question that actually sits in front of him, and he suddenly discovered that there were problems on Indian reservations and he moved to address them, but that’s about 25 years too late. He should have known that a long time ago — so I, if you’re missing my point, I think the name should be changed.

Q: Thank you, I think that’s a tweetable answer, thank you. What do you see as a solution to widespread unemployment and lack of purpose in the lives of many Native Americans today in the West? What can be done to alleviate poverty besides the usual answer “more education”?

A: Well that is one of the aspects of the usual answer, there’s no question about that. I think that it’s a combination of things and sort of in a way accounts for my having moved away from the law into museum work. I was a lawyer for half my career representing native interests and acting on behalf of native communities in the Congress and in the federal courts, state courts, tribal courts and then I moved on to become a museum director. And what I would say is it is a combination of factors I think that will spell ultimate success for native people. It is social and economic. There’s no question about it. And I think that the focus has to be on building viable local economies. And I’m not an economist, I hasten to point out, but somehow, local domestic economies on Indian reservations need to be constructed and built. And there is progress in doing that. The trend line is not great because the beginning point is so low, but there is progress and the trend line is probably correct in that way. At the same time, what occurred to me after about 20 of being a lawyer was what I was actually doing. My father had something to do with this, being the artist in the family. And that is that what I was doing was in the name of trying to protect the cultural viability of native people going forward. And so I think its not an either or. It’s not a disjunctive. It’s a conjunctive. Native peoples and native communities in order to be viable into the future must figure out a way to deal with the social and economic side. At the same time, they are protecting cultural values going into the future that have so much to do with a successful self-identity and self-esteem of the future generations that sit in Indian areas and Indian reservations at the present time.

Q: Please comment on the impact of casino ownership on the Native American community.

A: I was kind of hoping that would be the follow-up question. I’ll tell you one little story very quickly. That is that when we were fundraising, at the NMAI — which we had to do lots of because we had to raise most of the cost on the billing on the mall — I remember going up to visit the Mashantucket Pequots in what was then Ledyard, and is now I think Mashantucket, Connecticut. And I remember coming across the hill — I had landed in Providence, and we were rolling through the bucolic countryside of rural Connecticut and it was gorgeous. Verdant fields, etc. — And so I come over this rise and there in front of me for those who have ever seen it was this huge architectural colossus, teal blue as I recall, which was the casino of the Mashantucket Pequots. And I remember going into that the first time. When I walked into that casino, this was on a Wednesday near no holiday that I could know of, there were 20,000 people in that casino. And my mother, who was the daughter of Baptist missionaries to China, I could hear her voice clearly in my mind. Although God love her, she’s been gone for a generation, saying, “What are these people doing here and why don’t they get a job and go home?” But the fact it, now here’s the economic reality of it, it’s true at Mashantucket and it’s true at a lot of other communities, there are Native communities who have simply overhauled themselves financially and economically based on casino revenues. And bear in mind that, under federal law, there is a limitation normally on how much of that money can be distributed on a per capita basis, but in any event, you have money that flows directly into the reform of social and economic structures, educational structures, the delivery of health service, etc., on the Indian reservations that come from casino operations. And I think that the best of them have done precisely that and that is most of them, quite frankly. And then remember one other thing: Casinos, at the level that you’re familiar with probably such as Mashantucket of Mohegan in Connecticut, Oneida here in New York, they represent a tiny segment of the native community. There’re probably sixty or seventy casinos across the country. There are over 500 federally recognized tribes. Don’t think that everybody is getting a free walk because of casino operations. What casinos have done now is they’ve begun organizing themselves so that there is some export of financial support that comes from those tribes that do have casinos to those tribes who aren’t anywhere near a casino and trying to help out in that way. So my bottom line view of it, and this isn’t simply because we filed an amicus brief in the Cabazon case that was the defining case giving tribes the right to have casinos, it has nothing to do with that. I think that as we look at what happens in those areas where there has been casinos that there is a net good not just to native communities, but native communities like Mashantucket employ primarily non-natives in their casino operations and so it has had a net benefit to native communities in my own view.

Q: Cluster of questions regarding existing cultural monuments. Could you comment on the reinterpretation of the history at the Little Bighorn Battle national monument and to what extent could — or should — museums like the Heard or Fennimore incorporate the horizontal approach?

A: That’s a great question. Now, you may have to give me the parts of it again. But the first had to do with Little Bighorn, correct? And that’s very important to me because, although Lakota are the people that you hear of in connection with the Little Bighorn, Cheys take a very different view of it. We were the elite shock troops of the Little Bighorn. We were there in great numbers, and I have ancestors that were there at Little Bighorn. And what happened, candidly, and I have no disrespect, but it comes from my point about interpreting history horizontally. For a long time, for a long time, the interpretation — even though it was officially run by the National Park Service — at Little Bighorn, was in the hands of the Custer Society. They had the most impact upon what you saw there. The much more balanced approach has been taken, I think, more recently in threading everything together. In interweaving, it is not just the Custer Society that should control the story in places like that. It should include other perspectives on what happened at the Little Bighorn. And I think that the redoing, the restructuring the reconstruction of the interpretive line at the Little Bighorn was transformed, this was a number of years ago now, but when they redid the essential substance and approach of the interpretation format at that particular national park site.

Q: To what extent could/should museums like the Heard/Fennimore consider incorporating the horizontal approach?

A: Let me make two points: One is that I realize that there are many different models of interpretative approach and I wasn’t trying to create some kind of a monopoly of what all interpretation should be. They will continue to vary. The Heard museum is essentially — which I have the greatest respect for and which has I think the largest collection of my father’s own work so it holds a very special place for me — but the Heard museum was historically an art museum and so that is their medium. But if you look at some of the things they have done recently, there is much more of this threading that is going on. For example, they use the medium of photography, which is an art form, a very distinguished one, obviously, to talk about the subject of Indian boarding school. So that is this kind of threading of art that has cultural import and impact. And so I think even at the Heard they are doing that and that museum actually is now directed by a very distinguished director, Jim Pepper Henry, who used to be one of my associate directors at the National Museum of the American Indian. So I happen to think that it is in very good hands. And you’re talking about the museum in Cooperstown, and that of course is one of the most brilliant private collections I know of on this planet. So if you’re in this general area, if you ever can, go to Cooperstown and look at the Eugene Thaw wing of the Historical Society museum there because that is a private collection that has no equal as far as I’m concerned. Now that’s a case where Gene Thaw, who is a generous benefactor of the National Museum of the American Indian, and a person with God’s eye for the aesthetics of native material approached in entirely as art. That was what he wished to do. I think that that is perfectly legitimate and I think we need all of these varieties in interpreting these native peoples and cultures. I gave you one, and there are others. I think the Heard museum at this point sits somewhere in the middle, Cooperstown will always be I think an art museum and that’s absolutely valid and I do want people also to appreciate the commanding aesthetics of the things native people made.

Q: A couple questions about public access and utilization of the materials at NMAI and Autry resources. How can I best use them for my three and a half year old grandchild, and how do new interpretations of native peoples in museums reach the wider culture through textbooks, movies, novels etc.?

A: Well I think that the first question involves what museums should be. Museums, in my view, should always strive to be powerful engines of education. That is one of our key roles. And only recently had museums begun to kind of belly-up to that in any meaningful way. I know that when museums used to do exhibits, it began with a curator, it then went to the exhibit designers, way down at the tail end of it, it finally got to the educators who were supposed to try to explicate all of this to the public. That’s not true anymore and it certainly isn’t the way we did things at the NMAI and its not the way we do them at the Autry National Center. We have a project team that has all of the stakeholders at the table from the get go. It has curators, exhibit designers, educators, marketers, public relations folks, fundraisers, etc. They should all be there. So part of the answer to the question is that there are indeed good educations programs. They exist at the NMAI, and they exist at the Autry National Center of the American West that are aimed at particular demographic aged sectors. And that include little kids, younger kids. And so I think that you will find at the NMAI and the Autry ample evidence of that going forward and the second part of that was? I’m sorry I don’t have anything to write with or I’d be taking this down.

Q: Can you address the controversy about the design of the museum for the NMAI?

A: Oh you mean the architect? Oh, that’s an inside question. Yes, well what happened…let me see. I’ve got to tap into my lawyer-like dispassion here. What happened frankly was that we, I love that building, let me say that initially, I really do. And let me just divert for just a second about that building because I remember when I became the director of the NMAI I was terrified knowing that we were going to have the architect who designed the building that’s there, probably because at that time Carter Brown, the master of sort of Western civilization on sort of the national mall as the director of the National Gallery of Art was the head of the DC Fine Arts Commission. And I wondered whether he who had overseen the construction of the east wing of the National Gallery in all its elegant, modern, angles and lines. It’s just the apotheosis of modern architecture as far as I’m concerned. It’s probably one of the ten best buildings in the world. What he would think of something that was going to be freeform and organic in form I got to tell you, well one back-up of that, really quickly. Carter Brown invited me to lunch within two weeks after I go there, and I thought, what? But one doesn’t turn doesn’t invitations like that so I went. And he took me out onto his balcony, he was still the director of the National Gallery at that point, looked across at my site and said, “you know that is a wonderful site you have over there.” And I said, “yes” and I was already thinking, where is this going? And I said, “yes, that’s right” and you know “we’re really looking forward to working with that site” and he said “well so am I and just know that I’m going to be watching you every step of the way.” But he watched us with kind eyes. He understood in some respects the kind of complementarity between his building, the east wing of the National Gallery, and ours. They’ve always been referred to sometimes in gender terms. The male building is the east wing of the gallery, the soft lines and curve linearity, stopping short of sexism I want to emphasize, of the building of the National Museum of the American Indian. They fit. They really fit. And there’s such symbolism in all of that. Here at the head of the Mall you have a symbol of the apotheosis really of Western civilization art, the National Gallery of Art. They sit side by side in equality with the National Museum of the American Indian. And so to get back to the main question though, what happened was that in that project there simply were problems in the delivery of the drawings that were necessary to get that building finished. And at a point in time I did what directors sometimes have to do, and it’s painful, because that architect was a personal, still is a personal friend of mine. We had to simply change our architects at the time to get the projects finished. I had Congress breathing down my neck, we were behind in the construction of it and the planning of it, and those are just kind of nasty bites that museum directors have to take sometimes. And so there was controversy about that. But I will say that we were actually bailed out by another distinguished signature architect in New York City who had built the collections building for the mall’s museum. And I called him up and I said, “You know you always promised you’d help if we got in a bind about this” and he did. And he, I shall leave him unnamed, but he went to his firm and said, “listen, I’ve been contacted by the director of the NMAI and I think we need to consider helping them finish off that building and his colleagues basically said, “don’t you touch that. Our name will be mud throughout the architectural community if you do that.” And he said he said, “thank you very much for your advice and of course you realize that this firm is a sole proprietorship and we’re going to do it.” And so they did and so they helped finish off the building.

Q: In light of that last answer there are questions about what advice you would give to a new museum under construction now the National African American Museum of History and Culture.

A: Now Lonnie Bunch, who is the director of that museum, happens to be a very very close personal friend and he actually sat on the board of the National Museum of the American Indian before he took the position at the African American museum. And I think he’s done it very well, and that’s a great building and I think he’s overseen what could have been very controversial. If anything, I think Lonnie Bunch had more to contend with in terms of the variety of stakeholders and constituencies for that museum than we did, even at the NMAI. Because of how we planted, which he has done a lot of too, we began with the community and worked up to the design form there. And Lonnie I thinking did a lot of the same kind of consulting within the African American community as they were putting together the design for that building. And so as a result, I think he has done very well with it. He has not, fortunately, had to terminate relationships with any architects yet. And he should be very grateful for that because had I known what I was going to go through with that, I’m not quite sure what I would have done. I remember calling my dad when we were in the midst of that, and I was just beside myself when we had to go through that process and I told my father who was, as a told you, a painter and a sculptor, I said, “Gosh, you artists, why are you all so bloody temperamental?” And my father simply said, “Architects are not artists. Period.”

—Transcribed by Carson Quirós