"If he's got a weakness, it's that he's got almost got no ability to be mean," asserts West's longtime law partner and friend in Albuquerque, Kevin Gower. "Rather than confront and fight and stir up tension and bad feelings, he's willing to walk away and say life is too short. He thinks you win more that way . . . by softening the views of others rather than beating them over the head."
West does bridle in his own way, though--a raised brow here, a chopping hand gesture there--at the prospect of seeing the Indian way of life assimilated out of existence.
He chides the media for largely ignoring the Indian community, preferring to traffic in romanticized and derogatory caricature, \o7 a la \f7 James Fenimore Cooper's noble savage. He asserts that museums, including the Smithsonian, tend to treat Indians as if they were dinosaurs, a mere collection of models and bones.
The idea for the American Indian museum was forged in a hostile environment. Indian groups for years had protested the Smithsonian's holding of Indian remains and burial artifacts in its massive archives.
The 1989 legislation that authorized the Indian museum's creation--subject to a $36-million private fund-raising drive that West will head--also mandated the repatriation and proper burial of those remains.
"It's about time," West says. "The circumstances under which many of these remains were collected--and ended up in the Smithsonian collection--are very offensive. Some of the remains actually came from battlefields where soldiers gathered up the bodies and shipped them off to Washington. Quite frankly, that's a terrible, inhuman way for our ancestors to be treated."
He notes his own traditional Cheyenne belief that "unless a body has been properly buried, its spirit really never starts on the journey up the Milky Way to the hereafter, and simply wanders around lost in the village where it died.
"For us, it is important that the remains be returned so the spirits can be liberated."
The "living" museum West envisions will be "part history, part sociology--a slice of Indian life, past and present." He expects that its emphasis on modern community and culture as much as its history will embolden the Indian community.
Indian leaders-- who have criticized the Smithsonian in the past as a staid, ethnocentric institution--praise West's appointment.
Notes Gower: "I've seen simplistic exhibits (at the Smithsonian) suffering from a cultural myopia. Words like \o7 primitive \f7 and \o7 savage \f7 are used in a denigrating way. It's nice that, for the first time, an Indian is going to have a central say about how Indians will be portrayed in the nation's most prominent place."
To that end, West is planning exhibits that will highlight current political controversies besetting the Indian way of life: violent feuding among Mohawks over gambling on their New York reservation; the South Dakotan Sioux's battle for U.S. reparations over broken treaties and stolen land; the Amazon natives' persecution by developers.
"I want it to be hemispheric in scope," West says. "The diversity and beauty of Native American culture don't stop at the U.S. border."
The philosophical and intellectual continuity of Indians, too, will be showcased, he says, noting that some Indian values are "supremely relevant" and gaining credence in the non-Indian world.
"Take what really is one of the driving values of Indian cultural life--that the land is not ours to buy and sell, to be bartered away," he says. "Now that sense of balance between us and nature, it can be easily romanticized. . . .
"But the concept has a lot of relevance. After all, what has the Juggernaut of technology done? It's gotten us polluted air, fouled water, et cetera," he says. "You're seeing attention being paid now to values that are inherently Indian."
West attended the University of Redlands--where he was a student leader--as an undergraduate, earned a master's degree in American history at Harvard and graduated from Stanford Law School in 1971. He won collegiate honors in legal writing and served as a clerk for a federal appellate judge. In 1979, he became the first Indian partner in the Washington office of the powerful New York law firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobsen.
As an associate, West took a leave of absence in 1977 to teach Indian law at Stanford and to help direct the American Indian Lawyer Training Program in Oakland. He returned to the firm in 1978, but after nine more years in Washington lobbying for Indian interests, in and out of court, his firm phased out its Indian accounts, West says, in favor of more profitable clientele.
He had a choice: Take up corporate law full time, or leave his hard-fought partnership.
In 1988, West uprooted his family for Albuquerque, to become a partner in what soon became Gover, Stetson, Williams & West, a firm whose attorneys devote their time exclusively to tribal affairs. It is the nation's largest American Indian-owned law firm.