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Celebration 2004: Director of Native museum visits Southeast

Head of National Museum of the American Indian takes time out of his schedule to attend Celebration

Posted: Sunday, June 06, 2004

Rick West had been invited to Celebration before. But his day job, as director of the National Museum of the American Indian, had always kept him preoccupied.

This year, he made Celebration a priority. West participated in Thursday's opening ceremonies, offering remarks and a brief speech about the museum's upcoming grand opening.

The NMAI (www.nmai.si.edu) has maintained a satellite office in New York for the last decade. It's brand new headquarters will open on Sept. 21 at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Somewhere between 500,000 to one million people are expected to attend. By West's count, it will be "the largest gathering of Native people in Washington, D.C., at any time in the history of this country."

"I really wanted to be supportive of the effort that is represented by Celebration," said West, a Southern Cheyenne. "Being Native myself, I'm a firm believer in these gatherings of contemporary people and communities that demonstrate so powerfully our continuing cultural existence and viability in the 21st century. Celebration 2004 is a wonderful indicator of that cultural vibrancy."

Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, is one of the trustees for the National Museum of American Indians. She has invited West to Celebration before. He arrived Tuesday night and attended Wednesday evening's reception for the Juried Art Show.

"It just so happens that my father, who is the Native side of my family, was a painter," West said. "He was an individual who took traditional art forms and took them to new places. I have always respected and honored the capacity and abilities of the very fine Native artists from Southeast Alaska who can use these very beautiful traditional art forms and use them in new and innovative ways."

West watched the Grand Entrance and gave brief remarks about the museum during the open ceremonies.

"Grand entrances are always moving experiences," West said. "I'm a Plains Indian myself, so we have our processions, too, for pow-wows and ceremonies like that. Among the Cheyennes, which is my own community, we refer to the drumbeat as the heartbeat of the Earth. And it's difficult to be in a ceremony like the ceremony we attended this morning and not realize the truth of that sentiment with all of those hundreds of drums up on the stage."

West grew up in Indian Country in Oklahoma.

"From what I've seen in my own community and what I've witnessed at Celebration 2004, I truly believe that there's a genuine renaissance in continuing Native culture in communities throughout the world. That's not just in the Western Hemisphere, but in New Zealand with the Maori and in Hawaii with the Native Hawaiians and many different places."

The national museum is one of 17 research offices of the Smithsonian. Its mission is to present the past and present of Native cultures, including history and art, from groups throughout the Western Hemisphere. The collection ranges from Tierra Del Fuego in South America to the Arctic Circle in the north.

The museum contains 25,000 Alaska items - the second or third largest collection of any state or country in the museum. Many of those are Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida items.

"I've been to both Alaska and Juneau a number of times, and I'm very familiar and know many people in the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian community," West said. "It was really wonderful to see old friends and to witness again the vitality of cultural life in Southeast Alaska. In fact, I ran across a number of people who indicated they were making plans to be up at the Mall in September."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.



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