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American Indian Museum Director Prefers History Unfiltered

Rick West, a member of the Cheyenne Tribe that was relocated to the Plains state of Oklahoma, created a museum that shows native culture as American Indians, not outsiders, see it.

Like thousands of Native Americans, his ancestors were driven from their lands in Colorado and Wyoming and relocated to what was then called Indian Territory, on windswept plains north of Texas. Now 63, Mr. West would grow up to become a prominent Washington lawyer, lobbyist for Indian rights, and a driving force behind the creation of the first museum on the Washington Mall dedicated to minority culture.

Rick West first lived in a log cabin, where his father -- a sculptor and painter -- taught his two sons Indian ways. As boys, they even danced in full attire on American television in the 1950s, when Rick met Jay Silverheels, an Iroquois who played a character named Tonto on a popular TV western. He was the so-called "faithful Indian companion" of a white hero named the Lone Ranger.

"Jay Silverheels, quite frankly, did a great deal for Native people in Hollywood at a time when Native people, as actors, could not even get their foot in the door," Mr. West says. "Media's treatment of Native people, especially in film, didn't really change until the 1990s. It was full of stereotypes of uni-dimensional Native people: barbaric, often savage, without feeling, without complexity -- none of which is true of either Native cultures or Native people.

The arrival of the film Dances With Wolves was really a pivot point in commercial film, in which there was added complexity and depth to the Native characters in that film, which, interestingly enough, involved a lot of Native actors for the first time in history, actually."

Why not use a more politically popular term, "Native American," rather than calling it the "Museum of the American Indian?" Rick West says Native American can be confusing. "In a given roomful of people, almost everybody there is probably native American, even if they are not indigenous to this hemisphere, simply because they were born in this country. So both terms have their drawbacks. It is largely a debate that occurred in the non-Indian world, not the Native world."

Rick West has received letters critical of the museum's use of high technology. This is Disneyland, they say: untraditional, and therefore un-Indian. He replies, "Every single one of those letters came from a non-Native. That's not the way that Native people themselves will look at the matter. We have always been willing to engage new technologies in the preservation of ourselves and our cultures."

To its more than four million visitors so far, the new Smithsonian museum has told a story that goes back many millennia, before whites invaded Indians' midst and eventually decimated much of their culture. But Rick West says that in raising more than $100 million dollars to build the museum, fundraisers never played what he calls "the guilt card." "I do not dispute that everyone who calls himself or herself an American needs to reflect on the treatment of Native peoples in our history. But my father, actually, was the one who told me, early on, 'You can get only so far, personally or even collectively, trying to trump the guilt card.' If we act like victims, that almost always entails the invocation of guilt. We need to get beyond that."

Nor does Rick West apologize for accepting hefty donations from tribes that have grown wealthy off revenue from casino gambling. "People can have varying personal views, moral views, if you will, about the appropriateness of gaming," he says. "I have seen, and I invite others to investigate, the transformation that has occurred in lots of contemporary Native communities because they have these resources."

Rick West says museums like his should be forums for the discussion of controversial ideas, such as the use of sports nicknames like "Savages" that insult Native Americans. This is an apt subject in a city that adores its professional American football team, the Washington Redskins. He notes, "I would hope that at some point great sport franchises will begin to reflect on the fact that Native people are complex, multi-dimensional human beings."

Rick West, who plans to leave his post late next year, says he hopes the museum he helped create has enabled visitors from throughout the world to think not only about native history, but also about the lives of the 30 to 35 million Indians of today, who insist upon a strong voice in their own cultural future.

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