When the ground is broken and consecrated for the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian today, its founding director, W. Richard West Jr., will have fulfilled part of his mission: to give a national facility dedicated to the story of Native American history and culture a prominent place on the Mall.
But another mission--breaking the stereotypes that have marked popular images of American Indians--may prove a tougher challenge.
"As a museum of living cultures, the National Museum of the American Indian hopes to change forever the way people view the hemisphere's first citizens--primarily by erasing the mindless and often harmful stereotypes that frequently haunt native people," West said yesterday in a speech at the National Press Club.
West, a lawyer and member of the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribes, has guided development of the museum from shortly after its approval by Congress a decade ago through the controversial design phase, a $60 million fund-raising drive and decisions on the image of Native Americans that the museum will offer.
The picture most Americans have is one-dimensional, he said: "Consider the image of all native peoples in the United States as Plains Indians, all as handsome and chiseled as Jeff Chandler, elegantly galloping on horseback across waving fields of buffalo grass, war bonnets flying in the wind--an image that, as a Plains Indian, candidly, I did not object to all that much, but which I knew to be utterly inconsistent with the great diversity among native communities and peoples."
The tribes are varied, which means they have differing views of the museum. Some criticism or controversy regarding curatorial approaches is probably inevitable, but West said he doubted it would reach the level of bitterness generated by the fiasco surrounding the Smithsonian's Enola Gay exhibit, about the use of nuclear weapons during World War II. After the museum is completed in 2002, West estimates, some 6 million visitors a year will walk through its "comprehensive and multidimensional" displays. He said the exhibits will not avoid analysis of events like the Battle of Little Bighorn and the role of Gen. George Custer or Chief Sitting Bull.
"History is what it is, as far as I am concerned, and I don't really back away from that. We will tell the history as we can best understand it and interpret it. But what I would like to point out is that the museum is not simply about a particular or single period in time," West explained. All the exhibits are being planned with tribal historians, he said, and that might help the museum "survive any attacks that come its way."
West, 56, who grew up in Muskogee, Okla., didn't take the curator's route into museum administration. He has two degrees in American history, one from the University of Redlands in California and a master's from Harvard. After earning a law degree at Stanford University, he worked on Indian issues for a leading Washington law firm. When he was named director of the Smithsonian's Indian Museum in 1990 he was a partner in an Indian-owned law firm in Albuquerque.
He has one of the broadest portfolios at the Smithsonian, overseeing three facilities: the George Gustav Heye Center, an Indian museum that opened five years ago in New York; the Cultural Resources Center, a storage facility and study center in Suitland; and the $110 million museum being built on the Mall.
Yesterday's forum, and the discussion of stereotypes, inevitably brought up the vexing question of the Washington Redskins football team. "I think there are words that are just not appropriate. 'Redskin' in particular is pejorative," West said, emphasizing that he was speaking not as a Smithsonian official but as a Native American.
But he also pointed out that there are no easy answers in the name debate; some Indians, he said, don't object to "Braves" or "Warriors." "It goes back to this notion of this unidimensionality of a people," West said. "It is not a complete picture of native people. That is what is wrong with those kind of references to anybody."