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West's quest: cultural continuance of Native American peoples
Richard West
Richard West

West's quest: cultural continuance of Native American peoples

By Rebecca Arrington

Native Americans have contributed greatly to civilization throughout the ages and are today in the midst of a cultural renaissance, said W. Richard West, founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. During his Nov. 29 talk, he dispelled myths about Native Americans -- both past and present, explained their non-linear approach to history, and discussed the vision for the new museum.

West said that both he and Congress see the museum as an "international institution of living cultures, one of whose obligations is to support through its human and material resources the cultural continuance of native people of the Western Hemisphere," he said. The museum will give the full spectrum of history -- the past, the present, and the future, said West, who explained that Native Americans, unlike European Americans, don't think linearly. "We believe that we're all connected to the things that happened at the beginning of our existence, and those live on as they're handed down to us -- timeless traditions and values," he said.

The museum will feature three permanent exhibitions: "Our Universes," "Our Peoples," and "Our Lives." The exhibitions will include first-person narratives, instead of the customary third-person, in order to capture the "unfiltered voices" of Native Americans, West said. "We'll be very direct and honest in our presentation," he said. "Our holocaust, which is one century out of tens of thousands of years of existence in this hemisphere, won't be the totality of our story."

Native American art in the 21st century
Squaw Island painting
Squaw Island. Painting by Mishibinijima (James Simon), who lives near Lake Huron in Canada. A member of the Ojibwe people, Mishibinijima said he developed his own symbols in his artwork based on traditional ones, rather than duplicate the sacred icons out of their religious context.

To accomplish this, about 70 percent of the exhibitions' curation is being produced by Native American tribes, said West, himself a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma. With help from the museum staff, they are deciding how their stories will be presented to the six- to eight-million visitors expected to tour the facility when it opens on the last available site on the nation's Mall in 2002.

"To understand the future of Native Americans, we must understand the past, the multiple stereotypes and untruths," West said. To illustrate his point, he quoted a passage from American History: A Survey, written about a decade ago by three "distinguished American historians." It states: "For thousands of centuries -- centuries in which human races were evolving, forming communities and building the beginnings of national civilizations in African, Asia and Europe -- the continents known as the Americas stood empty of mankind and its works. The story of this New World is a story of creation where none existed."

"This statement, frankly, represents the most unfortunate kind of Euro-centric myopia," West said, "and should bother not only those of us excluded from history by it, but for that matter anyone who values the discourse of history as an indispensable tool for a more accurate understanding of the past. I would have hoped that distinguished American historians would know better," he said. "It's no wonder that North Americans today, both native and non-native, know so little of the accomplishments of Native Americans of the past."

West gave some basic facts that begin to set the record straight.

Demographers now estimate that some 75 million people lived in the Americas in 1492, 6 million to 9 million in the U.S., and the balance in South and Central America, he said.

He also cited early cultures of the Ohio Valley, which existed from about 200 B.C. to 500 A.D. and reflected a highly advanced knowledge of geometry and astronomy, as sophisticated as the Mayans' at the peak of their civilization, West said. There were earth works, lunar in orientation, and serpent mounds, perfectly aligned with the sun. Another solar-aligned settlement he mentioned, that existed some 3,000 years ago in what is now Louisiana, was seven times the size of its contemporary, Stonehenge, in England. "The Poverty Point Settlement was an established development that prospered, while its [European] contemporary was but a minor, rural village," he said.

During the Middle Ages, "Cahokia, at the site of what is today St. Louis, Missouri, boasted some 30,000 to 50,000 people and had earthen pyramids 12 stories high," he said. These ruins were destroyed in the 19th century, he said. Ironically, it was a former Smithsonian Museum official, John Wesley Powell, who determined that the pyramids were built by Native Americans and therefore had little cultural value, West said.

W. Richard West has devoted his life to working with American Indians on cultural, educational, legal and governmental issues. Before becoming founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in 1990, he served as general counsel and special counsel to numerous Indian tribes and organizations, where he represented clients before federal, state and tribal courts, Congress and various federal government units.

West's talk, titled "Native America in the 21st Century: Out of the Mists and Beyond Myth," was sponsored by U.Va.'s Native American Student Association. It was videotaped and will air on the U.Va. Newsmakers Speakers Series Dec. 28 from 9-9:30 p.m. and Dec. 29 from 11-11:30 a.m. on Adelphia's Public Access Channel 13.

The National Museum is made up of three facilities: the soon-to-open D.C. museum, and two other facilities already open, one in New York City and the other in Suitland, Md.

The effect the Europeans had on Native Americans was "in a word, devastating," West said. In 1492 there were thousands of distinct Native American cultures in the Americas. Within two generations those diverse cultures were reduced by 50 percent, due to disease and war, and by 1900, the year of the first U.S. census, that statistic was 95 percent.

West also touched on the destruction of his own Cheyenne peoples' way of life as nomadic buffalo hunters, and the federal government's intervention into the lives of Native Americans. West's father, like many other children, was removed from his home at age 4 and placed in a federal boarding school where he lived for 20 years, not allowed to see his parents often or practice his native customs.

Given such history, West is not surprised that Native Americans rank at the bottom of every social and economic statistic indicator. However, he's not disheartened. "Native Americans have a tenacity, a will to survive." He also said that across the U.S., native peoples are in the midst of an "unprecedented cultural renaissance, a seminal and historic shift in the thinking and perception of their futures. ... And finally, I believe that western civilization might be willing to accept that it may not have gotten everything right," said West, who stressed the importance of "an appreciation and understanding for the shared cultural heritage of every person in this room -- native or non-native. It's relevant to the future of all of us as we make our way into the 21st century."

In answering questions from the audience after his talk, West responded to one about the gaming industries that are cropping up on Indian reservations throughout the U.S. West said he doesn't think the boost in economy will undermine the tribes' cultures. Of the 500 recognized Indian groups in this country only about 40 have gaming rights, he said. How these groups spend their money is also monitored, to a degree, by the federal government. "Most tribes who have gaming rights have their eyes on the further horizon," he said, noting that the Piquet Tribe in Connecticut, which has the largest gaming operation, gave $10 million to his museum. "At the time the gift was made, it was the largest single cash contribution to the museum in the Smithsonian's 146-year history." The new revenues have also improved the infrastructures of the reservations in regard to health care and educational programs, he said.


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