tv Tavis Smiley PBS July 4, 2013 12:00am-12:31am PDT
tavis: good evening. from los angeles, i am tavis smiley. tonight, a conversation with w. west, jr., and now, the new president of the arapaho in los center -- of the autry in los angeles, particularly when it comes to indigenous, marginalized people and cultures. we are glad you could join us for our conversation with w. richard west, right now. >> there is a saying that dr. king had that said there is always the right time to do the right thing. i just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. we know that we are only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do.
walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the u.s. as we work together, we can stamp hunger out. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. tavis: so how do we approach honoring the cultures of those marginalize it proved it can have controversy. jr. knows thist, all too well, a founding director of the national museum
of the american indian, and he is with the autry museum in l.a., and he is also a special counsel to many indian tribes in their effort to do with the government, and he is the son of an acclaimed indian artists, the late richard west, sr. we are happy to have you on the program. i wanted to start by asking you about your dad. you were very young when he gave you an edict that you have lived by. "you are cheyenne, and do not forget it." >> that is just about exactly what he said, and he said it early. him i very important to think because of the challenges he faced being cheyenne. he grew up in a harder time. he grew up to protect me, and he was not protected in the same way i was. he went to boarding school and was taken away from his parents
at about four years old and packed away at boarding school for the next 20 years or so. he had to fight hard to claim his heritage and protect it. tavis: besides him verbally, audibly telling you to never forget your heritage and never lose sight of it, what did the expose you to that gave you and love for what you do? obviously, very well. >> well, it was that he attended to our personal identity and our community identity. we grew up in oklahoma. i have one younger brother, and both of us grew up with our family in oklahoma. oklahoma was the last stopping place for the southern cheyenne. we had originally been in colorado, was yielding, but they had been removed from there in the 19th century, and he was born on the last agency land in oklahoma, and so we maintain
very close ties with our community and with our family on the cheyenne side, while i was growing up there in oklahoma, so it was easy to do there. we were constantly surrounded by other families, participating in the life of the cheyenne there, and that is what it takes to create that kind of identity. tavis: it became the epicenter of your personal pursuits. it is one thing to appreciate the heritage and revel in it, but it is another thing to spend, as you have, a good part of your professional career back to make sure the rest of us come to appreciate it. >> i guess it was this. my dad was unique in his generation in that he went to university, he went to college probably two or three generations before other native people of his generation, and that was unusual. my dad was a studio-trained
artist. that did not happen that much, a studio-trained artist in the 1920's and 30's, but what he told my brother and me early on is that the cheyennes were no longer a cultural island. we should persist and remain cheyenne from the standpoint of what our community and personal identity was, but we had to learn how to deal with the outside. it is also metaphorically the valuable in this that my mother was not cheyenne. she was white. she was an important part of our lives, too, father indicated that we needed to be cheyenne, as you indicated, but at the same time, we had to be able to cope with the outside and we had to do our level best to make sure dealing with the outside world that we did the best we could for the cheyenne community. tavis: i am not naïve and asking
this question, but why is in most americans are lacking in knowledge of -- the depreciation, much less the understanding, and embrace of this part of american history? why is there always the attempt, the effort? >> well, i would say it is both quantitative and geography. tavis: ok. >> it is quantitative because there are relatively few of us. even now, we are a small minority of the american population, about one-half of 1%, so there is that. in the beginning of the 19th century, there was every effort possible to remove native people from side, and by that i do not just mean physically. i mean culturally. the effort was to put us on reservations where we were physically separated, and then at the same time to wipe out the culture that really defines native communities to be what they were and what they had been
historically, and if you are successful in that, then you have white to somebody out. fortunately for us, they were not successful in doing that, and so, we are still here. tavis: so how does the smithsonian institution get to make this? you oversaw that and raise the money to make it happen. >> well, the timing was right. i will not at all attempt to claim that it was i who did all of it. i wasn't. i happen to be at the right place at the right time. i happen to be a washington lawyer. i am a lawyer by trade, and i came to the museum in the second part, my first part was as an attorney. i had been in washington and had contact with the smithsonian institution avocational the prior to becoming the director of the museum, so i was known to the smithsonian. i had experience in washington, which they wanted to.
i had raised money before for various reasons. i came out of the art aside, if you will, in the native community because my father was an artist, and i grew up around the although trained as an artist, and all sort of fit as we smithsonian institution was concerned, and for me, it definitely fit, and i probably deliberated 1 nanoseconds, and when i was even contemplating doing it, i knew that was precisely what i wanted to do. tavis: i celebrate it on every possible level, and when i come up with somewhat interesting, this native american museum was constructed before the african american museum. clearly, the native americans were here first, so in terms of chronology, they should get their stores, but there are so many more african-americans in the country, and we are just
now where they are under construction for the african american museum of culture in washington. why are we always bringing up the rear? >> well, that is a very interesting question and a very astute question. i think because in some with specs notwithstanding what had been done to native peoples, which was not entirely different to what happened to african-americans in this american nevertheless, indians were a slightly safer ethnic, if you will. they occupy this very romantic position in the minds of many americans, and it is easy to do that because it hides what the history really was. you have a very romanticized conception of what the american indians are, and so that was part of the reason. the other was, attaches itself to washington, d.c. the native people had a particularly potent political champion in the form of senator
dan inouye, who was a ranking member in the united states senate. the other side of it is the collection became available, the collection which i saw as a teenager in new york from oklahoma. it became available because the trusts that held it in new york was going belly up, essentially. it needed support, and the smithsonian institution and congress entered into an association with the trust to transfer that collection, which the then-head considered international collection by any definition to the smithsonian, and that became the museum of the american indian. so it was a confluence of a number of factors, and it just happened to that the timing was right. in terms of the importance culturally, for the heritage, of course, it should have been no different for the african- american community than it was for the native american community. tavis: a quick follow-up.
how significant, how massive, in terms of artifacts, is this collection which was used to start this museum? >> it was massive. it was upwards of 1 million objects. probably 800,000 material objects in the collection and about 100,000 objects in the photographic archives. it was by any definition one of the two or three most significant collections of native american patrimony in the world, and it is not just a collection from the united states, i point out. one-third of the collection comes from south of the border, central america, and another percentage of the collection came from the first nations of canada, so pick a hemisphere collection, and it established a very important fact, that is there is a cultural access that runs north to south and not just east to west. >> how do you respond to people, richard, who say that this is
part of what is wrong with america, this compartmentalizing, this rationalization of america, where the native americans have to have their museum, the black folk have to have their museum? there is, obviously, the sentiment that still exists in the country that we are all americans and that what you are doing by definition is separatist, and we do not need these institutions, particularly at the cost we are spending to erect these buildings. how do you respond to that critique? >> i think it is shortsighted, to put it in that simple as a form, because i think what is the richest about this country culturally is the fact that we have in this country -- it is built on it, an immense amount of cultural diversity. now, not all of that diversity has been respected in some places as much as others. in other words, diversity among
european countries, that is one thing, and it is an entirely different thing when talking about the united states, but for the society to be whole, there has to be mutual respect for all of its cultural and ethnic components, so the 1980 pastas was a time, and the national museum of the american indian relief comes from that, but it was a time when voices were stepping forward teasley had not been heard and had been suppressed as a matter of heritage in this country, and in order for the country to make itself whole, you have to give voice to all of those elements and strands of the cultural fabric of this country, and so i have always been a supporter of the fact that institutions, like the african american museum of history and culture, they do exist because they bring voices to the table previously had not been heard. now, what i also think should happen, however, that once you get to that point, and you have
this mutuality of understanding, of cultural knowledge, of respect, then you are, at least as far as a museum goes, is to do something different, which is what brought me to the autry. why weone other question are in this line. if i were nitpicking, and i am -- >> i am sitting in the rideshare. tavis: i could make the case to you, and i will, that the museum world is, quite frankly, no different than the world that we inhabit, that discrimination is real, that racism is real, that marginal position is real, that exploitation is real, that afterthought-ness is real, because it takes so long to get the appreciation for the culture. talk to me about the experience. on the one hand, you are
cheyenne, and on the other hand, your mother is white, so you have experience the world with both, including being white. your thoughts on how race, culture, and gender is still at play in the art world, in the museum world. >> well, it is, and the story of the museum of american indian reflects that quite thoroughly. when you look at it, it was a collection that was put together and assembled by a very wealthy banker from new york who was essentially in certain respects a colonialist institution in that this person expected native peoples and communities simply to die out. it was kind of a cultural reclamation project, if you will, to pull together and remnants of a civilization that was nine. in his conception of it, there was definitely this conception the civilization
that will dominate and then simply others that will simply be going away, and that was at the root of many museums that collected material of other people. at the end of the 19th century and beginning part of the 20th century. and so, it was built on some promises that were highly, highly questionable. now, what happened, in the case of the museum is that the paradigm got turned on its head, and you have congress saying, we want to create an institution that reverses that, and that in many ways is a distinctly anti- colonialist, which is to say it was to enlist the participation of native people in this institution. sometatute, there were that in the department of justice that thought might be unconstitutional, require at least 50% of the board of trustees the american indian.
tavis: a novel idea. >> and novel idea. and then they selected native americans, at me as the founding director of it, and that began to shift, and so, you see museums, and probably as you say doing it to a slowly sometimes, it sort of shifting from one place to another. i really think, and i will interest in museums in my career has been premised on the notion that museums should be proactive in promoting a resolution to these kinds of issues and should themselves be forms for discussion that leads us past a certain points that are not really great attributes of civilization in this country. tavis: what do you say about the best way to enlighten, to empower, to educate, fellow citizens, is to try to convince them to walk into the doors of
an american indian museum to try to convince them to walk into the doors of an african american history and cultural museum, versus the smithsonian or any other museum, as a part of what they do, as a part of the exhibitions that they put on display, weaving all of this history as a part of american history? because that is exactly what it is. >> i think one should not be afraid to do both. tavis: ok. >> let me tell you how i would divide it up in my own mind. the ethnic museum is important when you are trying to remarkable and divorce voices to the table, and i do not care if it is a political discussion generally are something that is happening in a museum, but at the national museum of the american indian, i actually resisted the notion that at the smithsonian, some of everything, art, politics, whatever the subject, relating to the
american indian should be get- that thetto-iezed, culture was better off if you did. if you wanted to get the voices to the table, and it was difficult to do so, then do not be afraid to have a museum. but at the same time, do not let that set of initiatives let you off the hook when you are talking about the fact that those same subjects should be part of the menu of the national museum of american history and the national museum of american art at the smithsonian institution. tavis: so this space in your career starts at the smithsonian, and now, the autry is celebrating 25 years. tell us about that in your work on the west coast. >> well, i was thrilled to come to the autry. i had retired, and without going into the details of the story, i
was approached about coming to the autry, which i knew a little about because i had been brought to it with the now- director of the american museum of natural history, and he had asked me when the southwest museum collection, another very distinguished collection here in los angeles, it came into the autry, just to sit with him and talk about how it should be done, so i knew something about the autry. my main reason for coming to the autry is this. they had a great first 25 years, autry, and ane important subject, the american west. there is nothing more important to this country than the american west, what happened out here, for all sorts of reasons, politically, economically, so it
is a big subject to begin with, and what i saw at teh autry, which i would up pursued at the national american indian museum, i museum, the autry allowed us -- i felt that the autry allowed us to go beyond that situation where we are talking sort of about categories and community, non native community. african-american community, latino, and to try to began approaching these stories the way the mission was, namely we are here to tell all of the stories of the american west. inclusive it is an endeavor. it means there is a horizontal nature to what you are doing. you are finally trying to weave, as you said a moment ago, these stories together in ways where it is not somebody talking about
another person, but it is a number of people equal station, equal status, sitting at the table, talking about a particular subject, and that is different, and that is the beauty of the autry, and there was this notion of convergence of culture, and maybe what i could do at my tenure was to figure out how we really began putting these stories on the ground and giving that conception and that noble goal tread as we go forward. show: so how does that itself in the exhibitions that you have out? >> well, we have a couple but i think put that story right on the road, as far as i am concerned. the first, which opened very recently, in the past month or so, is "jews in the los angeles mozeliak," which i feel does exactly what i am talking about. sometimes when we talk about ethnically specific stories, it
is kind of an internal presentation. which is important. we are sort of telling it from the inside out. interestingly enough, the jewish community in los angeles is somewhat unique, as compared to jewish communities i know on the east coast, in new york. this community did not -- the jewish community in l.a., although it was comprised of immigrants did not enter the country through ellis island. these were established businessmen that came from elsewhere, and from the very get-go with the gold rush in the mid-19th century began being proprietor's and agents of commerce here in the los angeles area. they had an immense impact, so this exhibit, "jews in the los angeles mosaic," it is about the touch points between that community and other communities in that area, and this to me is
a marvel of the west, because that has always been the case, sometimes for good, sometimes or bad, sometimes in conflict, but sometimes in harmony, and those are important stories to tell because they are instructive for the future. the second exhibit i will talk about is "art of the west." it begins to tell those stories in a horizontal fashion, which is to say we have taken apart from all of the corners of this immense section of ours and organized them around themes that anybody who was in the west at that time talked about, movement, migration, religion, ceremony, and landscape, which is important to all, and that is a unique way of organizing that kind of material, and yet, it lets you get at a very big stories, and as i said, it is instructive for our future in this area in the west, in los angeles, in this region, because
those are all of the elements that will make up the future. tavis: i tease my friends all of the time on the east coast, i love the east coast, but sometimes i've been a big -- yes, i am talking to you all -- i sometimes think they think art and culture is a wholly owned subsidiary of the eastern suburb if you come out here, you want to check out the autry, and its leader autryw. richard west, jr.. thank you for your work. that is our show for tonight, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith. at pbs.org. tavis: hi, i'm tavis smiley. join me next time for a conversation with phil jacksoneat with his book, and that is next time. we will see you then.
>> there is a saying that dr. king had that said there is always the right time to do the right thing. i just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. we know that we are only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the u.s. as we work together, we can stamp hunger out. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. daniel mansergh: