Richard West
Photo: Mark Yarchoan '07

W. Richard West, Jr.

Doctor of Humane Letters

W. Richard West, a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, is founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian, a living testament to our nation’s first peoples and the most recent addition to the National Mall. Two decades in the making and open only since 2004, this extraordinary museum is far more than a repository for important cultural artifacts; built by, for and about American Indians, it is, as one critic says, “a native place…a museum of living cultures, where the subject matter is fully animate, alive and in charge.”

To understand Richard West’s story, it helps to know the story of his father, who at age six was taken from his parents and sent to federal boarding schools, where he was dressed in a military uniform and prevented from speaking Cheyenne. He went on to college (at a time when most American Indians did not), then earned a graduate degree in fine art. Well known as a master artist and college professor, he died in 1996.

West’s father made sure that his children were firmly grounded in their Cheyenne culture, and he worked equally hard to ensure that they were educated for a future “not held back,” Richard West has said, “by cultural insularity.” West’s work with the National Museum of the American Indian reflects that broad education. The NMAI’s newest structure on the National Mall stands in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol and confronts head on the complex relationship between Native Americans and those who came after them. It is, as Joel Achenbach wrote in the Washington Post, “different, audacious and not only native but also fully American.”

A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Redlands, West received an A.M. degree in history from Harvard and earned a J.D. degree from Stanford. Before his work with the NMAI, he was a partner at the law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson in Washington, D.C., and then at Gover, Stetson, Williams & West, an Albuquerque firm that served as counsel to many American Indian tribes. A member of numerous boards, he chaired the American Association of Museums from 1998 to 2000. West was asked to join the Southern Cheyenne Society of Chiefs, which oversees the ceremonial life of the tribe, in 2002.