quest: cultural continuance of Native American peoples
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.
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.
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."
American art in the 21st century
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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,"
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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.