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United Methodist heads Smithsonian’s Native American museum

 


United Methodist heads Smithsonian’s Native American museum

Sept. 20, 2004

By Mark Schoeff Jr.*

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� Maxwell MacKenzie/Smithsonian

The National Museum of the American Indian has a curvilinear design that stands out on the National Mall.
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.

He 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.

"She 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.

"It’s 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.

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Richard West Jr.
"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."

The 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.

"There’s 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 hemisphere."

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 hemisphere.

In 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.

"We 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 people."

Wilson, 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."

The 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 newsdesk@umcom.org.

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