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A Reckoning With History

By W. Richard West Jr.
Sunday, September 19, 2004; Page B07

The opening of the National Museum of the American Indian on Tuesday speaks eloquently to the poetic possibilities of history. With this powerfully symbolic act, the history of the Americas will have circled back on itself to a point of reckoning and resolution five centuries in the making. The hemisphere's first citizens will have a commanding presence in the political center of the nation, occupying the last site on the hallowed grounds of the Mall next door to the Capitol itself.

I cannot contemplate this long journey through the shadowed valleys of American history without remembering, as its very personification, the life of my late Southern Cheyenne father, Dick West. He was born in 1912 in Darlington, Okla., during the nadir of Southern Cheyenne cultural life. It had been shattered by the wars of the 19th century and the annihilation of the great buffalo herds. At 6 he was forcibly removed from his parents' home and sent to federal boarding schools, where he was dressed in a military uniform, his long hair was cut and he was prohibited from speaking Cheyenne. He remained there for the next 15 years and was trained, finally, to be a bricklayer and carpenter, notwithstanding his obvious gifts as an artist and his knowledge of traditional Plains art.

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Despite these compromised beginnings, my father ultimately triumphed in a long and productive life, passing away at 83 in 1996, well into my tenure as director of the National Museum of the American Indian. He remained proudly, almost fiercely, Cheyenne all his days. In his twenties he worked hard to graduate from college when most American Indians did not, and later he became the first Native person to receive a graduate degree in fine arts from the University of Oklahoma. He became a famed Native artist and major figure in the 20th-century Native fine arts movement. A college teacher, he taught generations of Native artists who literally have defined the field in this century and the one past.

As the museum opening approaches, I often contemplate my father's life as a profound, indeed defining, example for me. He worked with determination to ground me in the Cheyenne culture that for him had been retained against the explicit and oppressive policies of federal "de-culturalization" he had faced. To honor him and his hard-won wishes for me, I, too, have remained a Southern Cheyenne all of my life. Two years ago I was asked to join the Southern Cheyenne Society of Chiefs, which oversees the ceremonial life of the tribe, and to sit in council where my great-grandfather Thunderbull and my great-uncle Elliott Flying Coyote sat before me.

But my father also believed, almost adamantly, that I should prepare, through education, for what he believed would be the future of the Southern Cheyenne: a future not held back by cultural insularity. After college and graduate school, I trained as an attorney and represented American Indian tribes before the courts and Congress for many years before becoming director of the National Museum of the American Indian a decade and a half ago.

On a far larger, hemispheric canvas, the museum, through the eyes of Native peoples themselves, will give voice, in exhibition and program, to these same stories of cultural challenge, resilience and survival. The stories tell of enduring values, long held, that have centered the spiritual and cultural lives of the Native communities of the Americas for the millennia. They address candidly the devastating impact of the European encounter and the social and cultural destruction that resulted. They proclaim, however, with pride and truth looking to the future, the cultural constancy of 21st-century Native communities in the Americas and their steadfast refusal to become mere ethnographic remnants of ancient histories.

In so doing, the National Museum of the American Indian stands as an illuminating metaphor for a broader and fundamental change in the cultural consciousness of the contemporary Americas. That consciousness moves to recognize and respect the place of Native America as the originating element of the cultural heritage of all who call themselves citizens of the Americas. It also begins to honor, at long last, the presence and worthiness of 40 million contemporary indigenous people and hundreds of Native communities as essential components of the cultural life and vitality of the hemisphere.

I regret deeply that my father will not be with me on Tuesday. But in poignant ways, I know he really is -- because his life of beautiful and remarkable cultural faith and triumph against daunting odds is the story of Native America writ large that lives in the heart of this museum.

The writer is director of the National Museum of the American Indian.


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