W. Richard West, Jr.: A Steward of Cultural Diversity
"This job is the coalescence of all my life," says W. Richard West, Jr., director of the National Museum of the American Indian. "It has involved the creation of an institution that not only has to do with my personal history, but also operates at the interface between Native and non-Native communities—things I've been doing since I was a kid."
The son of a Native American master artist, West (Southern Cheyenne) was raised in Muskogee, Okla., steeped in the cultural and artistic dimensions of Indian life. Still, West's father also made sure his son was equipped to deal with the outside world, for the elder West well remembered the injustices of stolen Native land and the cruelly enforced assimilation of his youth.
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Redlands in California, West went on to earn a master's degree in American history from Harvard in 1968.
"Rather than pursuing a career in academia as planned," says West, "I opted instead to become more directly engaged in tending to matters that dealt with Indian interests. The late 1960s was a time of great political foment in this country. This was true for Native Americans too, and the Great Society actually visited the reservation briefly. I felt I would be closer to the barricade as a lawyer."
At Stanford University School of Law, West was the only Native American in his class, a unique status that he had known before and would know again.
"There were very few Native American lawyers at the time," recalls West, who graduated in 1971. "I was really part of the first wave that finished law school. As a third-year student, I helped to bring in other Indian students, and by the early 1970s, Stanford was actively recruiting them."
West was also one of the first Native American attorneys ever to be hired and made partner at a national firm (Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson). Throughout his 20-year law career, he protected Native communities as political entities, fostered their artistic and cultural traditions, and lobbied for Native clients on the Hill. Unwittingly, West was preparing for his present position.
As the very successful first director of the National Museum of the American Indian—constructed of rough-hewn limestone in the shadow of the National Capitol Building, with other facilities in New York City and Suitland, Md.—West strives to make it clear that Indians are the original inhabitants of the western hemisphere, as well as people of the present who also insist on a cultural future. He works to include Native Americans at the museum's decision-making table, allowing them a voice in representing and interpreting Native culture on the exhibition floor.
Though West does not intend to remain behind a desk forever, he has no plans to leave the museum any time soon.
"I need to be here for a while," concludes West, "if only to ensure our direct relevance in terms of conducting relationships on a daily basis with Native communities and their efforts to maintain culture."
(Read more about Native American lawyers in the article titled, "Native American Attorneys: Small in Number, Not in Influence," in this issue of Diversity & the Bar® magazine.)
Patrick Folliard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.
From the March/April 2006 issue of Diversity & The Bar®