After spending years as an attorney specializing in American Indian legal reform and rights, Rick West ’65 was presented a unique opportunity—to become the founding director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.
“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.”
West spent 17 years in this role, establishing and expanding collections, fundraising and creating a vision for the museum’s future before retiring in 2007. In 2013, he headed to Los Angeles to serve as president and CEO of the Autry National Center.
“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 … but it was also filled with dazzling possibilities.”
West, a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, was an American history major and political science minor at Redlands. 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 and 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 before moving to Washington, D.C., with his wife, Mary Beth. For more than 15 years, he served as counsel to a number of tribes, organizations and interest groups. He was living in Albuquerque when he was approached by the Smithsonian.
“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.”
Now at the Autry, West is responsible for all operations of the museum and oversees a team of 160 professionals and 300 volunteers. 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.”