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Dr Richard West Jr, CEO, Autry Museum of the American West; Founding Director, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, 16 March 2016

MAT TRINCA: Dr West is a citizen of the Cheyenne Arapaho nation and he’s also a member of the Southern Cheyenne Society of Peace Chiefs. He’s dedicated his career and much of his personal life to working with museums on Native American history and cultural issues. He is currently the President and CEO of the Autry Museum of the American West. He’s also the founding director and director emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, which is, I know, known to you all. He explores transformational encounters between Native Americans and the museum in this paper and discusses the impact of federal legislation on museum practice. Please welcome Dr Richard West. [applause]

Dr RICHARD WEST: Thank you very much. I want to first of all express my gratitude and my honour in being welcomed to Ngunnawal country on behalf of the Ngambri people. When I received the gracious invitation to make a presentation to you this morning, the organisers suggested that I explore the theme of the conference, ‘New Encounters: Communities and Collections’, in the specific context of the Native repatriation laws enacted by the United States Congress approximately a generation ago. For almost two decades, as has been mentioned, I served as the founding director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and now am the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Autry Museum of the American West. Both museums hold renowned collections of Native cultural patrimony.

I pondered for a long time after receiving the invitation about what words might lead us on our important journey together this morning, and after a while they finally came to me. They were written by a beloved personal friend and colleague of mine in the United States, Elaine Heumann Gurian, my first deputy director of public programming at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). She made this statement during that period of immense, intense anxiety in the American museum community following the enactment of federal repatriation legislation a quarter of a century ago that applied to virtually all museums in the United States with collections of Native cultural patrimony. Here was her prescient observation:

[The American Indian repatriation claims] – in their persistence and in their assertion and reliance on [the] creation and prosecution of law – have been the most visible catalysts for the current industry-wide reappraisal of museums as social institutions. For this pressure, all of us, even in our most fearful and anxious states, should be grateful.We will, I believe, learn more about museum possibilities in the next decade, thanks to the American Indian community, than we have learned in the previous several. And museums will become different in a way that will, in the future, seem logical and self-evident. I predict we will not be able to recreate what all the fuss was about.

Elaine’s eloquent foresight will serve as the departure point and platform for the presentation I make to you this morning. First, I want to discuss the provisions of the legislation, summarise their requirements and assess their impact on museums and contemporary Native communities in the United States. Second, beyond the explicit provisions themselves, I want to address what I consider to be the profoundly transformative ripple effect of the repatriation legislation on museums like the NMAI and the Autry. Finally, and even if only briefly due to time constraints this morning, I want to at least glimpse for our future contemplation the implications that experience suggests for the very nature of all museums in the twenty-first century.

I turn first to the provisions of the federal repatriation legislation itself. They are contained in two statutes, the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989 and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, commonly known as NAGPRA. The 1989 Act applied only to the Smithsonian Institution and its Native collections of human remains, while the 1990 Act also covered collections of Native sacred objects and cultural patrimony.

The provisions of both congressional acts can be summarised together because of their legal sameness. Both acts mandate the return of objects in the categories I just described to culturally affiliated contemporary Native communities if the materials are either human remains and funerary objects or sacred objects or cultural patrimony essential to the conduct of contemporary life and ceremonial practice. The applicant Native community bears the burden of proof, which is a preponderance of the evidence.

Two finer distinctions exist between these statutes in their original form and in negotiated laws and policies applicable to the National Museum of the American Indian. At the NMAI, the evidentiary standard is more liberal: a ‘reasonable man’ basis, which only a director who is also a lawyer could understand, as is in my case, rather than a ‘preponderance of the evidence’. In addition, the NMAI’s repatriation practices apply to state – as well as federally – recognised Native communities, which increases the number of eligible applicants by 50 to 60.

The precise definitions for key terms in the legislation are not extensive. Thus, the interpretation of what constitutes satisfaction of the burden of proof, definitions of ‘culturally affiliated communities’ or the meaning of the words ‘sacred’ and ‘cultural patrimony’ remain matters of the further evolution of a common law of repatriation. That evolution is a work in progress, and all cases are normally considered on an ad hoc basis within these broad statutory parameters. This approach not only is statutorily prescribed but also, perhaps, is inevitable given the broad diversity and cultural practices among Native communities throughout the United States.

The American Congress, however, was clear in its legislative history of the 1989 and 1990 Acts about their intention. With respect to all covered objects in the Native collections of museums, the material was subject to repatriation and the restoration of legal and beneficial ownership to the originating Native communities. In the case of human remains and funerary objects, the basis was pure moral imperative; the correction of a vast wrong that occurred as Native human remains often were swept from nineteenth-century battlefields by the United States cavalry and carried away to conduct ‘cranial research’ – all of it in utter denial of the practices of Native communities regarding their deceased.

The rationale for returning sacred objects and cultural patrimony rested on a related but slightly different footing. The congressional finding was that objects relating to the sacred and ceremonial life of living Native peoples and cultures, and essential to its continuance, should be restored to their legal ownership and available for their use in maintaining and sustaining contemporary culture and community. Thus, upon their request and after due process, they should be repatriated to them for those purposes.

Both the NMAI and the Autry promptly instigated regimes, policies and protocols implementing the provisions of NAGPRA. Indeed, under its own guidelines, the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, prior to its merger into the Autry about a decade ago, had repatriated art and objects from its collections prior to the enactment of the 1989 and the 1990 Acts. As you know from my previous comments, a number of NMAI’s policies were more liberal in certain respects than the statutory baselines established in NAGPRA itself. In addition, as a matter of international comity the NMAI routinely repatriated objects defined in the repatriation legislation across national boundaries to Indigenous communities in Latin America and to First Nations in Canada, thus recognising that existing political boundaries were not ours and had no relevance to culture.

Here is the quantitative bottom line: in the past quarter century, the NMAI and the Autry returned tens of thousands of objects to contemporary Native communities in the United States and in other parts of the Americas. In the early days I would occasionally receive a letter decrying my purported decimation as the director of the NMAI of the Native collections over which I presided. First, my response was simple, and it ran along these lines: ‘I am required to abide by federal laws,’ with which by the way I happen to agree. ‘Second, the NMAI’s collections originally consisted of almost one million objects and we have to date repatriated approximately 30,000 of those, which leaves us with 970,000.’ I think we will be able to remain in business as a museum.

In addition, as direct collateral of repatriation, both the NMAI and the Autry learnt much more about their Native collections. Without exception, visiting members of Native communities who were inquiring about objects to be repatriated were generous in providing history and information regarding other objects in the collection that were not subject to repatriation. This added curation was worth its weight in gold, especially in the cases of the NMAI and the Autry where provenance and other information were sometimes very spotty.

The impact of repatriation on 574 federally recognised and 50 to 60 state-recognised contemporary Native communities, however, surely is primarily a qualitative rather than a quantitative matter. Entire orders of ceremonial, ritual and sacred practice were restored and revived, quite literally saved for the next generation and hopefully many beyond. Speaking as a person whose own southern Cheyenne community was deeply affected by repatriation and the return in particular of ancestral human remains, I can promise you that personally it was deeply, deeply affecting and profoundly reconciling. The wrenching inhumanity of having the remains of ancestors sitting for a century in a box on a museum shelf in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History ended.

The telling irony of the process for my own Cheyenne community was this: we literally had to create new ceremonies for reburying the remains of ancestors because in history we had no occasion to rebury anyone. For us, however, historical and cultural resolution and healing reconciliation sometimes may be late in coming and filled with complication, but the power and poignancy of that moment is no less for its being so. And that surely is the blessed legacy of repatriation in the United States for Native communities.

I would now like to turn, as promised, to the second part of our journey together this morning. I always consider the requirements of repatriation, the return of certain categories of objects – as important as they are – to be only the tip of the iceberg. The ripple effect of these statutes reaches far beyond their literal provisions. My first boss at the Smithsonian Institution, Secretary Robert McCormick Adams, a distinguished cultural anthropologist of the Middle East, eloquently captured the essence of that impact in this statement about the NMAI:

This is a national museum … [that] takes the permanence … the authenticity … the vitality and the self-determination of Native American voices … as the fundamental reality  … it must … represent.… [W]e move decisively from the older image of the museum as a temple with its superior, self-governing priesthood to … a forum … committed not to the promulgation of received wisdom but to the encouragement of a multi-cultural dialogue.

What sits behind that elegant description of the NMAI is this: that Native place on the National Mall in Washington DC, sitting as it does at the very foot of the nation’s Capitol Building and directly across from the National Gallery of Art, the establishment at last in symbolic form of equality between ‘those who came’ and ‘those who were here’, represented nothing less than a fundamental shift in the power relationship between contemporary Native communities and museums.

The particulars of that power shift were profound, multiple and enduring. As the child in museum form of multiculturalism, the NMAI represented the embodiment of the insistence by contemporary Native communities that their first person-voices be as integral to the interpretation of their histories in contemporary life as the third-person voices that had assumed the role for a century. The museum vocabulary regarding ‘authority’, ‘expertise’ and ‘authenticity’ took on new and different meanings. To that end, the opening core exhibitions of the NMAI contained installations driven and shaped by the unfiltered voices of 24 contemporary Native communities from throughout the Americas that within overarching themes told stories they had chosen using objects from the NMAI collections that they had selected.

Professor Claire Smith, a compatriot of yours in Australia and a distinguished archaeologist whose work and scholarship has been primarily with Indigenous communities here, confirmed this power shift in her review of the NMAI’s opening in 2004. She wrote:

In deciding to create a museum in which Native Americans tell their own stories, unfettered by the interpretive lens of the dominant society, the NMAI has realized its potential to provide unprecedented richness in interpretation and to offer rare insights into the lives of Native peoples. … [N]ew vistas, directed by Indigenous eyes, are opened to the public.The empowerment of new voices, however, also can involve a diminution of the authority of established voices.  By widening the concept of authority to include the voices of Indigenous peoples, many of whom feel they have been silenced too long … the NMAI, either intentionally or inadvertently, [and I can promise you it was intentional] challenges the position of non-Indigenous peoples as authorities on Indigenous cultures.

In the same spirit yet with variation, the Autry has always intrigued me because I saw it, in potentially transformational ways, as a related but different step from the NMAI: a ‘third wave’ relating to the NMAI’s first two as a colonial institution when it was the old Heye Foundation Museum of the American Indian in New York and then as an anti-colonial museum when it became the NMAI. As an ethnic specific museum, the NMAI was the supreme exemplar of the categorical or vertical cultural institution that grew up in the late twentieth century as diverse cultural communities – Native, African American, Latino/Latina, Japanese American, and others in the United States – made their way and on their own terms into museums. But an institution like the Autry, I felt, was a related collaborator.

And why? The Autry is by contrast a horizontal rather than vertical model of cultural interpretation and representation. In a respect it assumes, even though a work in progress, the established presence of diverse and authoritative cultural voices at the table of interpretation that the NMAI and other institutions like it strove to achieve and did so with great success. The Autry’s mission is to tell not one but, indeed, ‘all the stories of the American West’. That aspiration requires that the Autry attempt the complex, often nuanced and subtle task of weaving – indeed interweaving – these stories together by analysing and interpreting the points of engagement, sometimes harmonious and quite often not, but always important, that make up the cultural history and experience of the American West. In other words, the institution’s purpose is, in an important and defining sense, intercultural instead of multicultural.

Let me cite as an example the recent re-invention of the Autry’s art galleries in a core exhibit entitled ‘Art of the West’. First, the show, organised around three themes of ‘Religion and Ceremony’, ‘Land and Landscape’, and ‘Migration and Movement’, invokes Native voice in the first person directly. Preston Singletary, a gifted Native contemporary glass artist, and speaking directly to visitors in holographic form in the gallery, describes what is meant culturally by his aesthetically compelling Northwest Coast ‘bentwood box of glass’ and the ceremonial rattle he carved that is located nearby, both of which sit beside equally beautiful and similar historical pieces. In Preston’s words, the cultural message embedded in his art is all about cultural continuance and ‘survivance’. That’s a thriving that goes beyond mere survival, a circular hoop of cultural life and one that has only cycles with no end.

Second, in addition to Preston’s voice, the Autry’s curatorial interpretation represents a very compatible collaborator. As mentioned previously, the exhibit is organised around themes rather than as might be dictated by more conventional canons of art history, chronology or categories of material or media – an approach far more consistent with Native notions of time and material cultural and art. In addition, the hierarchies that have often defined art in the Western world since the Renaissance are rather conspicuously absent. Brilliant pieces of basket weaving and ceramics sit happily and meaningfully in equality as both art and cultural material beside two- and three-dimensional fine art in the form of paintings and sculpture.

And thus the important connections and interplay between my two blessed institutional homes for the past quarter of a century – the NMAI and the Autry. The one could not exist without the other, and neither would be present were it not for the power shift in museums driven by the concept of repatriation. The multicultural can also be the intercultural, the interpretation has evolved from the monologue to a dialogue, the first voice is now or is becoming a respected and valued contributor to all interpretive conversations, and the beneficiaries are all those who want to know the true and unvarnished breadth and depth of American cultural history and contemporary experience.

To move to the third and final point I promised to discuss: of what relevance are the National Museum of the American Indian and the Autry Museum of the American West as I have described them? You are in luck, I must say, as the much respected time keeper is hovering nearby right now and I can be nothing but very brief. But I want you to contemplate with me and ponder even bigger and more transformative possible canvases of twenty-first century museology and museum practice. It is this: the most seminal and enduring legacy of the Native repatriation process in the United States for museums of all kinds is the spirit and substance, the tangible and intangibles of the re-invention and change making it inspired, provoked and stimulated that challenged existing museum paradigms and conventions.

The NMAI and the Autry bespeak intentionally and explicitly pluralism in interpretive voice, shared authority in representation, redefinitions of expertise, and fully integrated relationships between museums and communities. These practices magnify and enlarge the conception of what museums are and what they can do. To restate Secretary Adams’ wisdom that I referred to before, ‘to transform the museum from the temple on the hill into a true fora for conversation, debate and, yes, even controversy’. I know that the conventional perception of these great institutions is that they are principally cultural destinations that remain somehow and always ultimately – and in some minds properly so – apart from the public mainstream, delightful weekend excursions but not a fully integrated component of the everyday social and civic fabric of the community.

I resist that notion and conception of museums and most emphatically in this century especially. I cannot speak for Australia, but the United States struggles at the moment to find an actualised civic and social space, gathering places for discourse that are also safety zones for unsafe ideas concerning cultural history and contemporary experience. The institutional church is less such a space than it was historically. The United States Congress and other bodies just like that that are state and local as the stewards of such discourse and consideration have become centres of unmitigated polarisation. And do not get me started on our current presidential primaries as instruments of reasoned civic discourse – an adventure down that lane might actually trump the rest of my presentation.

But for me, museums as forums offer potential antidote and hope. They cannot do everything of course but they are capable of more than they have done in the past in strengthening social, cultural and civic fabric. So please take this possible legacy of the repatriation legislation and apply it liberally for the sake of the future importance of museums.

In conclusion, and hopefully as sweet and gentle antidote for enduring 30 minutes of allegedly important but often dense verbiage regarding twenty-first century museology and museum practice, let me depart on the wings of poetry and a few words in Cheyenne. The former is a poem entitled ‘It Doesn’t End, Of Course’ by Simon Ortiz of the Pueblo of Acoma in the state of New Mexico. His focus, apropos of much of what I have said today, was on a cultural continuance of Native culture and identity. His words are these:

It doesn’t matter, of course.In all growing from all earths to all skies,In all touching all things,In all soothing the aches of all years,It doesn’t end.

Simon, of course, was speaking of the continuance of his personal Native identity and culture. But if the cultural journey you and I have taken today means anything, surely it is that we all have a stake in every one of the vital threads of the cultural fabric that make up great nations – their enduring value, their contemporary explication, and their continuance into our collective futures.

On that path together, as true seekers, let me wish all of us well. And today I speak these words in Cheyenne, especially to all of my Indigenous brothers and sisters who may be sitting in front of me right now: [Cheyenne language spoken]

In English: Maheo, the Great Mystery, walks beside you, and walks beside your work, and touches all the good that you attempt.  Thank you. (Applause)

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This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.

The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–24. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 01 January 2018

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