washingtonpost.com  > Arts & Living > Museums and Galleries > NMAI

Return of the Native

In a Collection From a 'Dying Culture,' Rick West Finds a Life's Work

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 18, 2004; Page C01

The year was 1956, roughly halfway through the century in which his people had been expected to disappear, and 13-year-old Rick West was standing in the old Museum of the American Indian at 155th and Broadway in far upper Manhattan, examining some of the artifacts -- shields, shirts, beaded moccasins -- that had been collected to commemorate their passing.

West and his family had traveled east from Muskogee, Okla., primarily so that he and his younger brother, Jim, could dance on an obscure television show called "Off to Adventure." Early in their childhoods, their father had taught Rick and Jim traditional dancing as part of their Cheyenne heritage, outfitting them in regalia adorned with painted turkey feathers. The filming took place somewhere upstate and it seemed to go on forever, with the TV people asking the boys to do the eagle dance again and again in search of a perfect take. Finally their mother, a strong-minded woman "who was not to be suppressed very long," as Rick West puts it, stomped onto the stage and halted the proceedings.


Rick West, director of the Smithsonian's new National Museum of the American Indian, is a Cheyenne chief and Stanford Law graduate. (Lucian Perkins - The Washington Post)

"They are 10 and 13 years old," she fumed. "What do you think they are, the Rockettes?"

But while the TV appearance was the main reason for the New York trip, the Wests also took the opportunity to check out some native culture that wasn't available back home. They toured the American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West, where they found dioramas of Indian life juxtaposed with dinosaur skeletons and other natural history displays. ("Maybe they assume we're dead, too," the boys remember their father saying.) And they schlepped uptown to the funky, out-of-the-way institution that housed the life's work of an eccentric New York collector named George Heye.

The good news about Heye's Museum of the American Indian was that there was nary a dinosaur bone in sight. Even so, Rick West says, he found the place disturbing.

Almost all the Cheyennes he knew were in Oklahoma. What were their treasures doing here?

The young man and the old collector never met. Heye died in 1957, a year after the Wests' New York trip, and he could scarcely have guessed that a little more than three decades later, 800,000 or so of the objects he had acquired would form the core of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, with West as its founding director. But if you want to know the genesis of the dramatic new edifice nearing completion just east of the Air and Space Museum on the Mall -- and what's more, if you want to understand the radical change that has occurred, over the past hundred years, in native peoples' relations with non-native America -- it is instructive to contrast the lives and times of George Gustav Heye and W. Richard West.

In the early 20th century, when George Heye began seriously chasing Indian artifacts, it was widely assumed that Indians themselves would soon fade from the scene.

By the early 21st century, Rick West's mission -- as it had been for most of his working life -- was to forcefully remind us that they are still here.

The Collecting Bug

In the archives of the National Museum of the American Indian there is a film clip of Heye rejoicing over an Indian grave.

The camera caught him and his second wife, Thea, on their 1915 honeymoon, which they spent helping to excavate the Nacoochee Mound in Georgia. As reported by Edmund Carpenter, a trustee of the old museum who's working on a book about Heye, the film shows "him in shirtsleeves, her in overalls and a pith helmet. He finds a superb piece. She embraces him."

A big man with big bucks -- he topped 300 pounds at some points in his life, and lived well for all of it -- Heye must have found this an unusually happy domestic moment. Thea died relatively young and neither of his two other wives gave a hoot about Indian culture. For most of his 83 years, collecting triumphs were his principal source of joy.

He was born in 1874, the son of a German American entrepreneur who sold his oil business to John D. Rockefeller. Coddled by his nurse and his mother, both of whom called him Baby George until he was in college, he went on to work briefly for a railroad in Arizona in 1897. There he encountered his first Indians and, more important, their stuff.

"One night I noticed the wife of one of my Indian foremen biting on what seemed to be a piece of skin," he wrote in one of the few bits of self-examination he left behind. "Upon inquiry I found she was chewing the seams of her husband's deerskin shirt in order to kill the lice."

He bought the shirt.

Before he knew it, "the collecting bug seized me and I was lost."

The virulence of the disease wasn't immediately apparent. After he got back from Arizona, as the New Yorker reported in a 1960 profile, he behaved much like the other young swells of his time: joining clubs, buying Rolls-Royces, sampling fine wines and helping start a Wall Street bank. But before long the collecting bug had him dispatching archaeologists throughout the hemisphere to unearth more Indian treasure, which he would then catalogue himself, writing a number directly on each piece. In 1916 he converted his private holdings into a tax-sheltered museum while remaining director for life.

The New Yorker painted a vivid portrait of Heye the imperial collector hoisting himself into new limousines and tearing off across the West to vacuum up native artifacts. "What George enjoyed most on his automobile trips was hunting up Indian reservations," an archaeologist who worked with him was quoted anonymously as saying. (Carpenter identifies the man as Junius Bird.) Heye was "what we call a boxcar collector," Bird explained, meaning that he would be "hard to live with until he'd bought every last dirty dishcloth and discarded shoe and shipped them back to New York. He felt that he couldn't conscientiously leave a reservation until its entire population was practically naked."

Heye did love these western forays, but the truth is that the bulk of his collection came either from archaeological expeditions he supported or from shrewd acquisitions of the troves of fellow collectors.

It didn't come without controversy, either.

There was the time Heye and the members of his archaeological crew got arrested in New Jersey for grave-robbing (their conviction was overturned). There was the clandestine maneuver -- "as devious as anything on record," according to Bird -- by which Heye spirited a priceless collection away from the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences for $7,000. And there was the case of the sacred Hidatsa medicine bundle that Heye returned, with great fanfare, to the tribe at its request. He duped the Indians by substituting lesser artifacts for the bundle's actual contents.

Yet his support also contributed to a kind of golden age of Indian research. At a time when it was feared that "many of these tribes are on the verge of extinction, and others are so rapidly being civilized that the old knowledge will be a matter of the past in a few years," as Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas put it, Heye's methods could be justified as the only way to preserve a vanishing culture.

Heye's golden age ended in 1928, when two of his most supportive trustees had the temerity to die without leaving the museum the bequests he'd counted on. The stock market crash of 1929 just made matters worse. Heye stopped funding expeditions and let almost all the museum staff go. Still, he kept the enterprise alive for the rest of his life, paying for his activities, Carpenter says, by selling off tens of thousands of artifacts.

The 1970s and '80s brought a grim battle for the underfinanced museum's survival. The details are too byzantine to summarize here, but one turning point came when the trustees, desperate for leverage to use on unsympathetic New York politicians, solicited an offer from billionaire H. Ross Perot to move the collection to Texas. In 1989, after protracted negotiations, the Smithsonian acquired Heye's treasures on condition that it maintain a significant presence in New York. Part of the deal also, written into the legislation authorizing the Smithsonian's American Indian museum, was the unprecedented notion that Indians themselves would collaborate in its creation.


Thea and George Heye, with Harmon Hendricks, place the first objects in the cases of Heye's Indian museum in New York in 1918. The Heye collection forms the core of the new Smithsonian museum's holdings. (National Museum of the American Indian)
Times had changed since George Heye, as former Smithsonian secretary Robert McC. Adams put it recently, "bought the shirt off some Navajo's back and then never looked back." This new venture, Adams explained at its launching, would be a partnership with native peoples, whose history and culture would now be represented "only with their full complicity."

It's hard to believe Heye would have approved.

"He didn't give a hang about Indians individually," Junius Bird told the New Yorker, and he was utterly unconcerned with their collective, present-day existence. "He bought all those objects solely in order to own them -- for what purpose, he never said."

"I keep thinking of George Heye as this great big kid who never grew up," says longtime National Museum of the American Indian curator Mary Jane Lenz, who has been researching this "complex, strange" man. She then quotes from a letter Heye sent in 1947, at age 73, after completing negotiations for yet another fine stash of Indian material.

"Me happy boy," he wrote.

Refusing to Vanish

"It was a time during which the explicit policy of the federal government was the deculturization of native peoples and communities," Rick West is saying. "The notion was that Indians, if they were to be saved, would have to be saved by ceasing to be Indians."

The director of the National Museum of the American Indian is sitting in his L'Enfant Plaza office, resplendent in shiny earth-tone suspenders and perfectly fitted suit. (West is invariably described, accurately, as one of the nattiest dressers in Washington.) He's talking about the early 20th century, when Heye was building the great collection he now oversees. Which means he's also talking about the world in which his father grew up.

Dick West was born in 1912. When he was 5 or 6 years old, he was sent -- as were almost all Indian children in those days, his son points out -- to a government boarding school whose explicit purpose was to "civilize" him. This was in Oklahoma, around the time his mother died in an influenza epidemic. His long hair was cut. He was forbidden to speak Cheyenne. He was taught bricklaying and carpentry, and every morning, in uniform, participated in military drills.

"Don't go back to the blanket" is one way the overriding message of these schools has been phrased, and it wasn't easy to resist: At some point, each of Rick West's four uncles left their Cheyenne connections behind, though two returned to become chiefs. But Dick West never let go of his native identity.

It helped that he had a vocation as an artist. He painted scenes from traditional Cheyenne stories, consulting tribal elders to get the details right. "His role as a young Indian Plains painter was to depict that which made Cheyenne Cheyenne," his son says. "He had to sit near the culture in order to know those things."

In time, he got a master of fine arts degree from the University of Oklahoma. Teaching art at Bacone College, a small, largely Indian school just outside Muskogee, he fell in love with the white daughter of Baptist missionaries. The marriage proved a happy one, but it was opposed by her Mississippi family on racial grounds. It wasn't until just before her father died that he admitted he'd been wrong.

Bacone was "great -- a very safe, secure place to grow up," Rick West says. But racism did occasionally intrude. Rick and Jim both recall that, traveling through the Southwest in the late 1940s and 1950s, their parents occasionally would be turned away from restaurants and motels. Jim, who went on to a career in banking and who now runs an Albuquerque nonprofit called Futures for Children, remembers his father walking back to the car after one such incident with "this awful look on his face, almost like he was physically sick." Their eyes met and "I knew by the look that whatever had happened included me. I can shut my eyes and picture that look today."

Yet the boys' primary image of their father was of a strong, successful man who understood that being a Cheyenne was a worthy thing and who made very sure -- with their mother's help -- that his sons understood this, too.

Dick West had a powerful effect on others as well. "He was known as a big person, a big man," says Suzan Harjo, a longtime activist and former Indian museum trustee who got to know the Wests while growing up. It was thrilling for younger people to be his friends, Harjo says, because "he conveyed to us how important our ancestors were at a time when in Oklahoma there were 'No Indians or Dogs Allowed' signs. That was a huge message."

Indeed. From the perspective of the 21st century, Dick West appears as a transitional figure, bridging the vast cultural gap between the world of George Heye and the world Indians inhabit today. He was a vanishing American who refused to vanish, a man who, along with numerous others of like mind and strong will, helped to preserve native culture and break down barriers to native progress before a broader social movement grew up to support those efforts. He broke barriers with his art, too, eventually blending native and European styles in abstract work that nonetheless reflected Cheyenne culture.

The fundamental message West got from his father, he says, was this: "We will never have the luxury, as Cheyennes, of being completely insular again. It's not going to happen. And so you have to ground yourself in being Cheyenne, but then you have to be equipped to deal with all that sits around you."

Being so equipped, both parents believed, meant being educated. For their elder son, this meant a BA from the University of Redlands in California, a master's in history from Harvard and a 1971 Stanford law degree. Along the way he married Mary Beth Braden, whose aunt had been his high school history teacher and who also ended up studying law at Stanford.

There was a practical reason for West's switch to law: The job prospects for history PhDs were abysmal at the time. But he also did it because -- with a revolution brewing in Indian country -- "I wanted to be closer to the front lines."

Change in the Wind

Over the next two decades, that is exactly where he was -- if by "front lines" you mean courtrooms, Capitol Hill and major law firms such as Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, where in 1979 West became the first Native American to make partner at any national firm.

Lawyering wasn't as telegenic as the Indian occupations of Alcatraz Island in 1969 or Wounded Knee in 1973. It didn't generate in-your-face manifestos like Vine Deloria Jr.'s "Custer Died for Your Sins." But West's work was just as revolutionary. He was one of a pioneering generation of native attorneys -- at the time he started law school, there were probably fewer than a hundred in the country -- whose efforts, building on those of white attorneys before them, solidified Indian tribes' status as sovereign entities within the federal system.

The attorneys didn't do this alone, of course. Kevin Gover, a younger West colleague who went on to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the Clinton administration, emphasizes that tribal leaders have been the driving force for change -- though it wouldn't have happened without the lawyers.

The beginning of the change dates back to the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt's "Indian New Deal" reversed the policy of breaking up reservations and trying to shoehorn unwilling native people into the mainstream culture. By allowing tribes to form their own governments, the Roosevelt administration also opened the door for them to raise the explosive question of treaty violations.

A major turning point came in the 1970s, under Richard Nixon. Rather than centralizing decisions about Indians at the federal level, Nixon's people started encouraging the tribes to run their own affairs. "It was an extraordinary breakthrough," Gover says -- and it led to many more.

Rick West worked as hard as anyone to make them happen.

He drafted Supreme Court briefs. He advised tribal governments. He helped his mentor, Arthur Lazarus of Fried, Frank, to win the Sioux compensation for their loss of the Black Hills. On his own, he took on important "disestablishment" cases, helping tribes fend off encroachments on their lands. And he served as the lead lobbyist for something called the Tribal Government Tax Status Act, which recognized tribes' right to finance their governmental activities by issuing tax-exempt bonds.

This last effort fell below most radar screens, but its effect was to put tribal governments on a legal and economic par with state and local governments. West's old friend Alan Parker, a former staff director for the Senate's Select Committee on Indian Affairs, rates it first among West's achievements. "When you can get your rights embedded in the tax code," he says, "you've really accomplished something."

West himself rates the legal victories as secondary to an enormous shift in overall cultural attitudes, though he adds that the two are related. For decades now, he says, "it has not been the official policy of this country" to make Indians disappear, and the logical corollary "is that, well, maybe there's actually something worth protecting here." This began to change the way Americans look at native people -- and the way they look at themselves.

Through all this, West built the reputation he maintains today: as a man who's smart, diplomatic, slow to show anger in public -- "indignation is probably the closest I get," he agrees -- but with plenty of his father's passion underneath. He is also someone, as colleagues invariably point out, who knows exactly who he is no matter which half of his bifurcated personal universe he's dealing with.

"This is a guy who stands proudly in both cultures and in neither culture is he obsequious or excessively deferential," says Roger Kennedy, the former head of the National Museum of American History and a close West friend.

"I've never seen him lose his head," Parker says. "There's an old expression from the civil rights days: 'You have to keep your eyes on the prize.' That seems to epitomize Rick."

In the late 1980s, Fried, Frank decided to shift its practice away from Indian law. After a brief stint as a pure corporate lawyer, West joined Gover and another colleague who'd started an all-Indian firm in New Mexico. Less than two years later, the Smithsonian latched onto the Heye collection and found itself in need of someone who knew his way around both Indian country and the Hill, someone who was equally comfortable at powwows and in boardrooms -- someone, in other words, who could not only dance the eagle dance but also was really, really comfortable in a suit.

It didn't take him long to say yes.

"There are a lot of lawyers," Gover says. "But the museum will be there forever."

Not the End of the Trail

Forever is also what it seems to have taken to get the new museum off the ground.

West and his staff have had to raise large amounts of private money while fighting to make Congress live up to its financial commitments. They've had to renovate the old U.S. Customs House in lower Manhattan and turn it into the George Gustav Heye Center, replacing Heye's old New York museum. They've had to plan and build a new facility in Suitland and painstakingly move the bulk of the collection there. They've had to grapple with the emotionally charged issue of repatriation, returning human remains and some sacred objects to tribes that claimed them. They've had to get the Mall museum built despite a bitter rift between the Smithsonian and architect Douglas Cardinal. And from the beginning, they've had to consult with hundreds of native communities to win their trust and to ensure that -- as required by law -- their voices would be heard throughout the new museum.

How those consultations shape the fundamental nature of the institution is a story that remains to be told. Central to it, however, will be the effort to shatter the image of Indians many Americans retain even in 2004: that they are creatures of the past -- noble, perhaps, but defeated -- who remain frozen in time. It's an image perfectly encapsulated, West says, in James Earle Fraser's much-reproduced sculpture "The End of the Trail," which depicts a brave slumping forward with his lance down, riding a horse with a drooping head.

So whatever the new museum's exhibitions include, when its doors open on Sept. 21, their underlying message will add up to this:

We're not who you think we are. We're many peoples, not one stereotype, and we have cultures that go back 20,000 years. We're still here -- and for once, we're telling our stories our own way.

Dick West, who died in 1996, won't be there for the opening, though his son did get to dance with him at a 1992 celebration in New York. Meanwhile, in what he calls "the most important thing that has ever happened to me in my life," Rick West recently became a chief of the Southern Cheyenne. "He was already living the life of a chief," says Gordon Yellowman, who nominated him. "He had made decisions for the benefit of his people."

As for George Heye -- whose employees, curator Mary Jane Lenz says, often referred to him as "the chief" -- well, he did something for native people, too, despite his blindness to their continuing existence. West has a story he likes to tell to illustrate this paradox.

It's about a Pomo basket weaver named Susan Billy who was going through the collection in the early days of the Smithsonian's stewardship. Billy's first reaction, West says, was similar to his own when he was 13: She was angry that her people's heritage was being warehoused in New York. "Then she turned a corner," he says, "and I just saw her start sobbing, and I couldn't figure out what on earth had happened."

At the end of the aisle, she had seen some baskets her own aunt had made.

"And her second reaction," West concludes, "was: How splendid that all of this is still here."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company