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Natural Harmony

The new National Museum of the American Indian is a proud expression of Native American beliefs

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When W. Richard West Jr. was appointed founding director of the Smithsonian's NationalMuseum of the American Indian (NMAI) in 1990, he was put in charge of a great collection and a vision. During the next 14 years, Rick West gradually set the contours of the vision in stone, so that the collection—some 800,000 artifacts gathered largely in the early decades of the 20th century by the American businessman George Gustav Heye—might be displayed as befits its remarkable distinction. NMAI now has three buildings. The HeyeCenter opened in the U.S. Custom House in Lower Manhattan in 1994. The CulturalResourcesCenter, a study and collections facility just outside Washington, was completed in 1998. And the third and most striking—on a 4.25-acre site between the U.S. Capitol and the National Air and SpaceMuseum—will be dedicated in September. The new museum will forever alter and immeasurably enlarge the world's sense of the native peoples of the Americas.

The Smithsonian buildings lining the National Mall are unlikely to be mistaken for anything but museums. But museums of what exactly? The exteriors—all but one—are mum about their purpose. The exception is the new NationalMuseum of the American Indian, a monumental structure unlike any of its neighbors. The architecture and setting, informed by Native American beliefs about the need for harmony between the built environment and the natural world, invite visitors to read the building's intention as they approach. The museum is oriented due east, and its undulant limestone walls appear to have been carved by the elements; flowing water and rocks and plants embellish the landscape. Inside and out, the building is a spectacular public gesture of cultural homage.

No one deserves more credit for NMAI's successful evolution than Rick West. Man and mission were ideally suited. Rick was raised in Oklahoma and is a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma and a chief of the Southern Cheyenne. He holds degrees in history and law, and before becoming director of NMAI, he was a partner in the Washington office of an international law firm and in the Albuquerque office of an Indian-owned firm. He has acted as counsel to numerous Indian tribes and organizations—before federal, state and tribal courts, departments of the federal government, and the Congress itself. But what matters above all for NMAI is that Rick's superb professional credentials are in the service of unwavering commitment, sure judgment, personal warmth, a diplomat's savvy and a temperament immune to setback and delay.

The years brought more than their share of moments that someone other than Rick might have called crises: the Mall museum underwent a change of architects; its projected cost rose from an initial estimate of $100 million to a sobering $200 million; the act of Congress that authorized the museum provided as well for the repatriation of artifacts to native peoples, thereby threatening a diminishment of the collection. Rick did not allow himself the luxury of alarm. The difficult moments were just that, moments, inevitable in the realization of so grand a project, bumps perhaps, but better thought of as blessings, because each was a new incentive to persevere, and perseverance would bring the goal ever closer.

In the end, the new architects did not compromise the creative vision of the original team; the additional $100 million of private and public support for the building was secured; and thanks to Rick's relations with native peoples and his ability to persuade them of the museum's good faith, repatriation has not threatened the collection. Rick made every obstacle a mere way station on the road to a destination he never doubted would be reached. In his mind, the outcome was always inevitable—and triumphant. His is the faith that's a match for mountains.

About Lawrence M. Small
Lawrence M. Small

Lawrence M. Small was the eleventh secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, serving from 2000 to 2007.

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