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A Bridge Between Two Worlds : Culture: As head of the new National Museum of the American Indian, Rick West aims to dispel the stereotype of his people as noble savages.

June 17, 1990|SHAWN POGATCHNIK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He played an integral role in the firm, becoming its president this year.

This made the news that West would leave, effective June 1, to take the $115,000-a-year Smithsonian job bittersweet for his colleagues.

"It's terrible," says co-worker Stetson, only partly in jest. "The news came as a big thump in my heart. . . . With Rick leaving, I'd feel sick if I didn't feel so proud."

For the next year or two, West plans to commute on weekends from Washington to New Mexico. His wife, Mary Beth--who attended Stanford Law School with Rick and today is an expert in international law--is obliged to stay a year as a law professor at New Mexico State University. His 15-year-old daughter, Amy, is vehement about finishing high school in Albuquerque.

As for his 12-year-old son, Ben: "He hasn't got a choice. He's coming out here," West says, punctuating the remark with a chuckle and a shake of the head.

"Oh, this isn't going to be an easy move. This is a permanent career change, though. . . . It will be the better part of a decade before this museum is even up."

And of that expected opening day in 1998, what happens then?

West turns away from his desk to gaze out the windows of his office.

"Americans," he says deliberately, granting each word its own emphasis, "will see the richness and diversity of historical and contemporary Indian life--as they have never seen it before. It won't come overnight. But we'll do it."

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