Rick West

Lawyer, Museum Director, Champion of Indigenous Causes

W. Richard West, Jr. considers himself a “boundary walker.” Born in 1943 to a Cheyenne father and a white mother, West grew up navigating two cultures. But his Oklahoma upbringing firmly planted him in the Native American community.

“My brother and I knew where we came from,” says West, JD ’71. “There was no question about that, but my parents wanted us to be able to negotiate across cultural boundaries.”

Through his work as a lawyer and director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Autry Museum of the American West, West did just that. 

He credits his successful career and advocacy for Native Americans largely to the foundation he received at Stanford. But entering law school was a move West almost didn’t make.

After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in American history in the 1960s, West was en route to a doctorate program at Harvard University when he decided to change course. 

“There was a lot going on at that time in terms of social movements and social action, and I concluded that my route to advocacy on behalf of Native justice was better done through law school than through having a PhD in American history,” he says.

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Rick West, JD ’71, at his home in Southern California

By the time he enrolled at Stanford Law School, there had only been a few American Indian students and no courses offered on Indigenous legal issues. Undeterred, West and several classmates approached administrators about adding such a class, and they brought in a professor from UCLA to teach it, marking one of West’s first successful acts of advocacy. There would be many more in a 50-year career shaped by efforts to champion Indigenous interests. 

While his wife Mary Beth West, JD ’72, finished her final year at Stanford Law, West clerked for Judge Ben C. Duniway, LLB ’31, at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. In 1973, he joined Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, where he represented clients, many of them Native American, before federal, state, and tribal courts. “I was the first Native American to be made a partner at a major U.S. law firm,” he says. Fifteen years later, he moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to work at the Native-owned firm of Gover, Stetson, Williams & West. 

And then another unexpected career move: In 1990, West signed on as founding director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C., a role he held until 2007. What appeared to be a surprising departure from the law suited him well. 

“My dad was a painter and a sculptor,” he says. “It seems like a strange leap, but it’s really not when you consider my dad’s connection and the fact that museum directors, even at that time, were not always chosen from the curatorial staff. There are a number of lawyers who have made very excellent museum directors, and I was hopefully among those.”

West was quick to draw on his legal expertise when the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed the year he joined NMAI. That federal law created a framework for federal agencies and federally funded museums to repatriate certain Native American cultural artifacts, such as sacred burial objects and human remains. 

“Even before 1990,” West recalls, “tribes were saying, ‘We believe that our ceremonial material should be returned to us. We need that for ongoing life right now, and it shouldn’t have been in a museum to begin with.’”

As director, West proceeded to “decolonize” NMAI, not only by removing inappropriate items from the museum’s collection, including human remains that had been on display, and repatriating them to their rightful communities but also by improving representations of Native Americans. 

Rather than refer to Native Americans in the third person in exhibits or other programming, for example, the museum invoked the first person because Native peoples are authorities on their own experiences and materials, West says. He also felt it was important not to relegate American Indians to history but to discuss their past, present, and future.

“There are few people who have had as profound an effect in the museum field as Rick West,” says Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. “Museums, before Rick West, felt that each story about people of color was an ancillary story. Rick helped to recenter that. He said, ‘This is a museum that is about a community that is still alive.’ He basically said that the museum had a contemporary impact.” 

In 2013, West was named president and chief executive officer at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. There too he tapped his legal background, whether working on governance-related issues or questions of repatriating cultural material and artifacts. 

“The training you receive as a lawyer is to understand all sides of issues,” says Dave Cartwright, board chair for the Autry. “I think that made Rick a really strong museum leader because he didn’t feel it necessary to argue everyone’s point of view. His ability to synthesize ideas and bring people around who are otherwise opponents into a coherent way to address an issue or our history or our collective problems was something legal training gives you.”

Stephen Aron, Autry’s current president and CEO (West retired last year but continues to serve as its ambassador to Native communities), says his predecessor’s mission will continue.

“At the Autry, Rick insisted on moving toward an intercultural rather than a multicultural model, and he really focused more on the mixing and mingling of peoples as opposed to treating cultures as if they’re in isolation from one another,” says Aron. “I think that legacy certainly is central to the vision I have, and I think certainly central to the way in which the Autry continues to move forward.” 

Reflecting on his varied career, West sees the law as the through line connecting his efforts to promote Native American causes and communities.

“Law gave me the ability to act on behalf of Native interests in the legal community, which was extremely important,” West says. “Museums did the very same thing for me in acting on behalf of Native people. Personally, it is important to me that my legal education and my upbringing gave me the facility and the experience to operate in both places.”  SL 

Nadra Nittle is an education reporter for The 19th News, who was previously a staff reporter for Vox Media and the Long Beach Press-Telegram. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Business Insider, The Atlantic, BBC News, NBC News, EdSource, and Stanford Business.