Methodist Heads Smithsonian’s New Native American Museum

( [email protected] ) Sep 22, 2004 05:33 PM EDT

Richard West Jr., a United Methodist and a chief of a Cheyenne Tribe, became the founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian 14 years ago. He saw the importance of the museum for the Smithsonian Institute.

The National Museum of the American Indian is set to open on Sept. 21 in New York and Maryland. The museum is a part of the Smithsonian Institute.

About 20,000 Native Americans will parade down the Mall and a First Americans Festival that will last through the weekend in celebration of the inauguration. The festival will feature more than 200 native artists, musicians and storytellers from throughout the hemisphere.

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.

In an interview with UMNS from his museum office with a panoramic view of the National Mall and the U.S. Capitol, West said, "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."

However, he believes that the National Museum of the American Indian is “an international institution of living cultures."

“He remembers telling a flight attendant about his new job and his own heritage as a chief of the Southern Cheyenne Tribe," reports UMNS. "She was caught by surprise," he said.

"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.

West says, "It’s exactly that kind of thing, that we’re all dead, that the culture is dying; I beg to differ, frankly," West said.

According to UMNS, the population of Native Americans, which dwindled from several million to about 250,000 by 1900, now exceeds 2 million and is growing.

"It’s more than just numbers, it’s a qualitative judgment, too," said West, 61. "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."

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 years.

"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 UMC.

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. "I have always found the Methodists open to the social issues that confront native peoples. And that was very important to me."