Sept. 20, 2004
By Mark Schoeff Jr.*
WASHINGTON (UMNS) -
When Richard West Jr. was traveling to Washington 14 years ago for the
announcement of his appointment as the founding director of the National
Museum of the American Indian, its role in the Smithsonian Institution
became apparent to him.
|� Maxwell MacKenzie/Smithsonian
The National Museum of the American Indian has a curvilinear design that stands out on the National Mall.
was telling a flight attendant about his new job and his own heritage
as a chief of the Southern Cheyenne Tribe. She was caught by surprise.
said, ‘Oh my, I thought they were all dead’," West said in recounting
her reaction to meeting a Native American. Changing that mindset is one
of the challenges facing the museum, which opens Sept. 21.
exactly that kind of thing, that we’re all dead, that the culture is
dying; I beg to differ, frankly," West said in an interview from his
museum office with a panoramic view of the National Mall and the U.S.
Capitol. In fact, after suffering a demographic collapse from a
population of between 6 million and 9 million to about 250,000 by 1900,
the number of Native Americans now exceeds 2 million and is growing.
"It’s more than just
numbers, it’s a qualitative judgment, too," said West, 61. "The fact is,
I think, there is a cultural renaissance going on in Indian country
right now that is truly profound. The attitude of native peoples toward
themselves and their culture is vastly different today - far more
affirmative than it was when I was growing up."
Richard West Jr.
museum, with centers in New York and Maryland in addition to the $200
million Mall landmark, houses 800,000 artifacts and is designed to
emphasize Native American vibrancy.
something about the very term ‘museum’ that seems inherently
retrospective because it’s talking about preserving and conserving and
going to see ancient objects on the walls," West said. "I really see,
notwithstanding our name, the National Museum of the American Indian as
being an international institution of living cultures and of the
inaugural ceremonies on Sept. 21 will capture that spirit by including a
procession of about 20,000 Native Americans down the Mall and a First
Americans Festival that will last through the weekend, featuring more
than 200 native artists, musicians and storytellers from throughout the
addition to his official activities, West will be recognized during
services at Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church in Washington
on Sept. 26. West and his family have been members of the church for
about 25 years.
are excited about the opening of this museum because it reminds America
of the continuing contributions of Native Americans to the well-being
of the country," said the Rev. David Wilson, superintendent of the
Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference of the United Methodist Church.
"We look at it as something for the present and future of the Native
a member of the Choctaw Tribe who will participate in the Sept. 26
service at Metropolitan Memorial, praised West’s leadership. "He’s very
well thought of among people of all tribes," he said. "I’m proud he’s a
United Methodist as well."
United Methodist Church has distinguished itself in the Native American
community, said West, who was raised as an American Baptist. "I have
always found the Methodists open to the social issues that confront
native peoples. And that was very important to me ... because not all
churches were as active on as wide a range of issues as Methodists were
in looking to the social and cultural welfare of native peoples."
*Schoeff is a correspondent for the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference’s UMConnection newspaper. This story first appeared in that paper.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.