Rick West ’71 spent years championing Native American legal rights. Now he’s in charge of the Smithsonian’s newest museum, the National Museum of the American Indian.

Very few people actually get the job of their dreams. Rick West of Washington, D.C., is one of those people—and it shows. He peppers his conversations with ecstatic phrases like “I love it” and “I’m thrilled!” Even his clothes are upbeat. He favors pastelcolored shirts and carefully tailored suits. In a town of bland bureaucrats and play-it-safe politicians, he stands out. “In a very singular way,” said West with characteristic verve, “my job has pulled together the threads of my life.”

W. Richard West, Jr., ’71 is the director of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and he isn’t exaggerating. Prior to being appointed the museum’s founding director in 1990, he had already been a lawyer, a lobbyist, a fund raiser, a historian, an arts advocate, and, as an integral part of it all, a lifelong activist for his fellow Native Americans. His mother was an accomplished classical pianist and his father was one of this country’s foremost American Indian artists. When a Smithsonian Institution search committee asked him whether he would consider applying for the post, West jumped at the chance.

Initially, the museum community didn’t welcome him. Quite the contrary. Despite his many qualifications, West lacked the most basic credential: He had never run a museum before. The closest he had come was serving on an advisory committee to the Smithsonian about how to expand its ethnic outreach and offerings. What made the NMAI job even more challenging was that West wouldn’t be running just a single museum. The position would require him to administer three separate facilities in three different cities: New York City’s George Gustav Heye Center, which is a permanent exhibition and educational facility; Suitland, Maryland’s Cultural Resources Center, a research and storage facility; and the new, National Museum of the American Indian on D.C.’s National Mall next to the Air and Space Museum.

 “I was not the most obvious candidate, because I did not come out of a pure museum background,” West said frankly. But the Smithsonian was looking for someone who could do more than oversee artifacts. It needed a spokesman for the nation’s long-oppressed Indian minority—in fact, someone from that world—who could also speak the language of, and get along well with, white people. On paper West looked like he would fit the bill and, as the last 14 years of his sometimes-difficult tenure have proved, he definitely did. “Rick West stands proudly in both cultures,” said Roger Kennedy, the former director of the National Museum of American History. “He was the right person for the job.” 

Almost anyone who has known West through the years agrees. “He’s a real buttoned-down, meticulous lawyer who people wouldn’t pick out as an Indian,” said Cate Stetson, a former law partner of West’s now with the firm Stetson & Jordan in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Yet he’s completely committed to the whole idea of tribal needs and tribal history. That’s his mission.”

West was born 61 years ago, the son of Walter Richard West, Sr., a descendant of Cheyenne chiefs, and Maribelle McCrea West, the daughter of white Baptist missionaries. West Sr., who was known as Dick, was educated at Indian boarding schools in which military discipline was designed to wring the native culture out of him. Instead, he went on to become the first Indian to get a master of fine arts degree from the University of Oklahoma and to make his name as a skilled artist in the Native American genre known as Plains painting. His works still hang in museums around the country.

 The Wests’ children, Rick and his younger brother Jim, grew up in a four-room log cabin on the campus of Bacone College, a small, mostly Indian university in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where Dick West worked as a professor. The family lived comfortably thanks to his additional income as an artist. They also hewed to their Indian roots. They frequently observed the many rites and rituals of the Southern Cheyenne people, including the famous Sun Dance. The boys were proficient enough that when Rick was 13, the Wests were invited to travel to New York City so that he and his younger brother could perform native dances in full regalia on a television show called Off to Adventure. 

But the experience of travel in general—and that trip in particular— wasn’t always a joy for the Wests. The family would occasionally be turned away from stores and motels because they weren’t white. Signs at the time warned visitors, “No Indians or Dogs Allowed.” And in New York, young Rick visited musty museums that contained Indian memorabilia and got the impression that his people, whom he knew to be alive and well, were considered by the outside world to be dead and defeated. He remembers to this day how disturbed he was by that experience. 

But neither he nor his brother was hobbled by discrimination and ignorance. They went on to become successful professionals. Jim became a banker and Rick, a lawyer— much to the surprise of their parents. After all their exposure to the arts at home, their mother would wonder aloud, and only half in jest, “What did I do wrong?” Rick graduated magna cum laude in American history with a Phi Beta Kappa key from the University of Redlands in Redlands, California. He then entered Harvard University’s doctoral program in American history. But the history-professor business, West recalled, was in a “precipitous state of collapse at the time,” so after completing a master’s degree in 1968, he chose to switch gears and get a law degree instead. After looking around, he picked Stanford Law School.

Stanford was a natural choice for several reasons. First of all, he says, it was a school of excellent reputation that was located closer to his home than Harvard or other good schools in the east. Although West had liked Harvard, he yearned to return to his native west. He also loved Stanford’s campus. “It was physically such a beautiful place,” he said. But it was the Bay Area’s left-leaning ideology and socially liberal politics that attracted him most. “If you couldn’t be in Cambridge [Mass.] in the late ’60s and early ’70s, why not the Bay Area? It was very close.” 

Besides, by the time he had reached his early twenties, he knew that his life’s purpose would focus on improving the lot of his fellow Indians. The political activism of the period only enhanced his desire. And thus, he said, the prospect of teaching American history “just wasn’t quite close enough to the barricades for me; law was the way I saw of getting closer.” 

West was the only American Indian enrolled at Stanford Law School. As far as he knows, he was only the second Native American to enroll at the law school in its history. But, he said, “I knew going into law school that I wanted to practice Indian law.” And Stanford was glad to help him do so. “Stanford Law School was highly receptive to the interface between law and the outside world, especially as it related to social issues,” recalled West. “It was even open to having Indian law taught there. In my third year, we succeeded in convincing Stanford to hire—as a professor on an adjunct basis—Monroe Price, a very distinguished [Indian law] professor from UCLA.”

West flourished at Stanford. He received a Hilmer Oehlmann, Jr. Prize for excellence in legal writing and served as an editor and note editor of the Stanford Law Review. “I loved it!” he said of his experience. “It’s an excellent law school. I had a fantastic legal education. It was an exciting time.” 

After he graduated in 1971, West clerked for a year in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, while his wife, Mary Beth Braden, completed her own Stanford law degree. Rick and Mary Beth met in Boston in 1966 while Rick was enrolled at Harvard and Mary Beth was working for a management consulting firm. After she graduated in 1972, they moved to Washington, D.C., where West joined the law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, which boasted one of the nation’s outstanding practices in Indian law. Working for such a big-name law firm might seem like an odd place to foment revolution. But West asserts that the work he and his colleagues did in the firm’s Indian department opened vast new vistas for his people. 

West occupied every day with efforts to advance his people’s oft-threatened legal standing. For instance, he worked on a case that helped to prevent the loss of thousands of acres of land from the Cheyenne River/Sioux reservation in South Dakota. “That really mattered to me,” he said, “and to the tribes.” As hard as it may be to believe, West once had to go to court to force a county in Arizona to seat on a board of supervisors a legitimately elected Navajo. “They said he wasn’t a state citizen, because he was an Indian,” West said with a shake of his head. 

West did more than write briefs and make arguments in court. He registered as a lobbyist in the U.S. Congress and pressed the case for Indian rights before national lawmakers. In the early 1980s he was instrumental in passing into law the Tribal Governmental Tax Status Act, which gave tribes the same powers of taxation that state governments have. That was one of many statutes that cemented the sovereignty that Native American tribes enjoy today and that are at the heart of their rising economic well-being in the United States. West’s outstanding work as a lawyer and lobbyist allowed him to become, in 1979, the first Indian to be elevated to partner status at Fried Frank and, for that matter, at any national law firm. But he never got too comfortable. He continued to use his position to help his people. At Stanford, for example, he encouraged both the law school and the university to work harder at recruiting and retaining Indians, which he says they do well to this day.

In 1988, West was ready for a change of scene. Fried Frank had de-emphasized its Indian practice, and West decided to move to Albuquerque and join the Indian-owned law firm Gover, Stetson, Williams & West, P.C. Soon after arriving, however, the Smithsonian came a-courting and he, his wife, and two children headed back to D.C. “This,” he said, “was what I was born to do.” 

“He’s very driven and committed, a perfectionist, and his integrity is unparalleled,” Stetson said. “His museum is just another way for him to fight for his culture and to win.” 

The task of managing so large an enterprise hasn’t been easy. He has had a few serious stumbles along the way. Federal funding was periodically imperiled, especially when fiscally conservative Republicans took over Congress in the mid-1990s. West’s previous experience as a lobbyist came in handy when he was forced to fight to restore full funding for his project, which he eventually was able to do. He also had to change architects in the middle of construction of the $199 million museum on the Mall. Two of the firms that he had retained for the project couldn’t get along and he was given no choice but to make a switch. The transition wasn’t pretty, but it worked. The imposing, distinctively rounded limestone structure opened with great fanfare on September 21. More than 25,000 Native Americans participated in the opening ceremonies, the largest number of Indians ever assembled in Washington. “It could be the cultural event of the decade,” said West with only slight hyperbole. The building occupies the last congressionally designated site for such construction on the entire National Mall. 

Under West’s guidance, the museum is unlike any museum you’ve ever seen. It has plenty of exhibitions, of course. Thanks to the tireless 587(and often ruthless) collecting of George Heye, a New York banker who toiled in the first half of the last century, the museum has more than 800,000 items in its collection. Among them are Sitting Bull’s drum and a fringed shirt once worn by Crazy Horse. But West’s is a “living museum.” Along with anthropologists and other academic experts, tribal leaders themselves helped decide what to display. “The Native people themselves are the primary voices of interpretation,” he said. 

A great deal of what is seen there is as much performance art as static exhibitions. Unlike the museums of West’s youth, this one views Native American culture, while ancient, as also ongoing. So the museum opened with a festival that celebrated the 2.5 million American Indians who still live in this country and the more than 30 million indigenous people who are scattered throughout the Western Hemisphere. 

West is especially proud that Indians themselves have been major contributors to the financial success of the museum. Three tribes—the Mashantucket Pequots, the Mohegans, and the Oneida Indian Nation—donated $10 million each to the Smithsonian to aid the project. Such riches wouldn’t have been possible without the work of West and other dedicated lawyers through the years that secured for these and other tribes the rights of sovereignty. West stoutly defends the source of the tribes’ riches, gambling, as something that gets a bad rap in the press but, in fact, has been a lifesaver for many once-destitute tribes. 

“What is thrilling to me is that these people took 10 million bucks out of their gaming revenues and sunk it into a non-Indian venture [the Smithsonian Institution],” West said. “It’s wonderful that they did that.” In fact, he notes, of the approximately $100 million in private money collected to build the museum, $35 million came from Native American communities, many of which, he said, are still operating “as if they were third-world countries.” 

Today, West is fully accepted in both the Indian and non-Indian cultures. Despite the museum establishment’s original questions about him, West has served as chairman of the American Association of Museums. He’s also a board member on such mainstream organizations as the Ford Foundation and Stanford University. But his greatest achievement, he says, was to have been named one of the Southern Cheyenne’s 44 peace chiefs a couple of years ago. Outside of his own family, “Nothing has been more important to me.” That, and the opening of his museum, have brought to completion the full circle of his life.