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UMNS# 04425-United Methodist heads Smithsonian's Native
Mon, 20 Sep 2004 17:08:48 -0500
United Methodist heads Smithsonian's Native American museum
Sep. 20, 2004 News media contact: Tim Tanton * (615) 7425470*
NOTE: A sidebar, UMNS story #426, and photographs are available at
By Mark Schoeff Jr.*
WASHINGTON (UMNS) - When Richard West Jr. was traveling to Washington 14
years ago for the announcement of his appointment as the founding director of
the National Museum of the American Indian, its role in the Smithsonian
Institution became apparent to him.
He was telling a flight attendant about his new job and his own heritage as a
chief of the Southern Cheyenne Tribe. She was caught by surprise.
"She said, 'Oh my, I thought they were all dead'," West said in recounting
her reaction to meeting a Native American. Changing that mindset is one of
the challenges facing the museum, which opens Sept. 21.
"It's exactly that kind of thing, that we're all dead, that the culture is
dying; I beg to differ, frankly," West said in an interview from his museum
office with a panoramic view of the National Mall and the U.S. Capitol. In
fact, after suffering a demographic collapse from a population of between 6
million and 9 million to about 250,000 by 1900, the number of Native
Americans now exceeds 2 million and is growing.
"It's more than just numbers, it's a qualitative judgment, too," said West,
61. "The fact is, I think, there is a cultural renaissance going on in Indian
country right now that is truly profound. The attitude of native peoples
toward themselves and their culture is vastly different today - far more
affirmative than it was when I was growing up."
The museum, with centers in New York and Maryland in addition to the $200
million Mall landmark, houses 800,000 artifacts and is designed to emphasize
Native American vibrancy.
"There's something about the very term 'museum' that seems inherently
retrospective because it's talking about preserving and conserving and going
to see ancient objects on the walls," West said. "I really see,
notwithstanding our name, the National Museum of the American Indian as being
an international institution of living cultures and of the hemisphere."
The inaugural ceremonies on Sept. 21 will capture that spirit by including a
procession of about 20,000 Native Americans down the Mall and a First
Americans Festival that will last through the weekend, featuring more than
200 native artists, musicians and storytellers from throughout the
In addition to his official activities, West will be recognized during
services at Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church in Washington on
Sept. 26. West and his family have been members of the church for about 25
"We are excited about the opening of this museum because it reminds America
of the continuing contributions of Native Americans to the well-being of the
country," said the Rev. David Wilson, superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian
Missionary Conference of the United Methodist Church. "We look at it as
something for the present and future of the Native people."
Wilson, a member of the Choctaw Tribe who will participate in the Sept. 26
service at Metropolitan Memorial, praised West's leadership. "He's very well
thought of among people of all tribes," he said. "I'm proud he's a United
Methodist as well."
The United Methodist Church has distinguished itself in the Native American
community, said West, who was raised as an American Baptist. "I have always
found the Methodists open to the social issues that confront native peoples.
And that was very important to me ... because not all churches were as active
on as wide a range of issues as Methodists were in looking to the social and
cultural welfare of native peoples."
*Schoeff is a correspondent for the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference's
UMConnection newspaper. This story first appeared in that paper.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or
United Methodist News Service
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