Meet Rick West '65
Through his work as the president and CEO of the Autry National Center of the American West, founding director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, and a leading attorney working with American Indian tribes, communities, and organizations, Rick West ’65 has made his mark in the world.
“It’s been very fulfilling,” he said.
West, a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, was born in San Bernardino, but soon after moved with his parents, master American Indian artist Walter Richard West Sr. and Maribelle McCrea West ’34 ’35, and brother, James Lee West ’68, to Muskogee, Oklahoma. While in high school, West was part of the state championship debate team, and hoped to continue that streak while in college.
“My mom always talked about what a good school Redlands was, but the clincher was Redlands also had a superb national reputation in collegiate forensics,” he said.
An American history major and political science minor, West moved away from debating after his sophomore year, and became more involved in student government and a “wonderfully active student life.” Upon graduation, West headed east and received his master’s degree in American history from Harvard University, but soon decided to follow a different path - to earn a law degree from Stanford University.
“I went with a very specific purpose - American Indian legal reform and rights,” he said.
West clerked at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, and then moved to Washington D.C. with his wife, Mary Beth. From 1973 to 1988, he practiced at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, where he was counsel to a number of tribes, organizations and interest groups and involved in several major claims.
“It was very important work,” he said. “American Indian legal reform was happening at the same time as the American Civil Rights movement for African Americans. It was a time of great change.”
In 1988, West moved to a new law firm, Gover, Stetson, Williams & West, P.C., in Albuquerque, but was quickly approached with a unique opportunity - the chance to become founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
“My dad was an artist, painter, and sculptor, so museums were not unknown to me,” he said. “I was around them growing up. It was also a way to protect political rights and to protect culture. It was a brilliant opportunity.”
As the founding director, West had two goals: to invoke the voice of native peoples themselves in exhibits and programming and to inform and teach others about native communities past and present. Many of the pieces that were going to be on display came from a trust in New York City that West was already familiar with.
“The beauty of it was I had actually seen the collection before,” he said. “My dad had taken us when we were younger, and it was considered the finest collection of Cheyenne material. It was thrilling and meaningful.”
West spent the next 17 years establishing and expanding collections, fundraising, and creating a vision for the museum’s future. He only slowed down slightly after he retired in 2007, serving as a consultant and interim director of the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. before coming back full-time to serve as the president and CEO of the Autry in 2013.
“This particular opportunity was very attractive to me,” he said. “The National Museum of the American Indian came out of an era of popular culture in the late 1980s and early 1990s where a community marginalized did the best it could to get itself to the table of conversation. The Autry was even more challenging, with the history and culture and experience of the American west, and having to cover all of that. But it was also filled with dazzling possibilities.”
At the Autry, West is responsible for all operations of the museum, and oversees a team of 160 professionals and 300 volunteers.
“I love it,” he said. “It is a great institution, and Los Angeles is vibrant, both culturally and artistically. We are emblematic of what is going on in the United States; we’re the preview of what will happen to the rest of the country. It’s a very special place.”
It’s fitting that West is back in Southern California, just an hour’s drive away from the place where the foundation for his remarkable career was solidified.
“Coming from Muskogee, I don’t know if I could have weathered anywhere else,” he said. “That’s what I cherished about Redlands; its smaller college, liberal arts approach to education. That’s so important, and was the building blocks of my own experience.”
Written by: Catherine Garcia