Cook-Lynn: Shame and the moral imagination
When W. Richard West Jr. opened the National Indian Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2004, he said this: ;'The message of this museum is cultural redemption and reconciliation.'' The promos he and his staff wrote at that moment boasted: ''The displays don't wallow in the genocide, broken promises and bloody wars of the 19th century.'' I commented on the inappropriateness of this objective of a major Native institution in the nation's capital in my latest book, ''New Indians, Old Wars.'' At that time, I was asking myself unanswerable questions about the ethics of writing and remembering history.
Today, West stands as the man many of us suspected he was: a man with no moral imagination, wallowing in charges of malfeasance and prideful abuse of power, offering only weak and predictable excuses. It was reported Jan. 5 by The Associated Press that he authorized and ''spent $48,500 in museum funds to commission an oil portrait of himself to hang on the fourth floor of the museum, selecting a non-Indian artist to do the painting.'' West's early comment, as he travels in Australia, was that he is ''slightly outraged'' to be set upon in this manner, but we can expect more communication from him as the weeks pass.
West is under investigation now, having been accused of spending $250,000 in four years on ''first-class transportation and luxury hotels.'' Who will investigate Richard West, how and under what circumstances, is still to be determined. Kevin Gover, former director of the BIA and recently vacated faculty member of the law school at Arizona State University, says this from his newly accepted position as successor to West at the museum: ''I would not presume to question [West's] judgment.''
The specific colonial discourse offered by West at the opening of NMAI and the aggressive positions of abuse of power taken by him to accompany his statements about the function of this institution puts together a complex articulation of what is happening in Indian enclaves all over the country. Some Native men (and women, too, one supposes) with academic degrees from Harvard, law licenses from prestigious places, MBAs and Ph.D.s and other tickets to the mainstream locations of culture and power in America, are opting for obscene salaries and post-performance positions throughout the business world and academia while the people who live in the real Indian world - teachers, program directors at reservations, clerks and community workers, dealers at the local casinos and child-care nurses - struggle in minimum wage jobs and try to keep their cars working and insurances paid up.
Abuse of power has always been a dilemma. But, it is more than a dilemma; it is a shame when it happens in Indian country because it indicates a failure of the ''moral imagination,'' and results in the oppression of an entire indigenous population who have for too long been the victims of power in capitalistic America.
Most of us are members of communities that pass on their collective moral principles to other members, and from that comes our ''moral imagination,'' our ethical reasoning, our ways of knowing what is appropriate and what assists our tribal survival. That beginning is what makes this downfall of one of our own so sad. When I went off to college at South Dakota State University from the Crow Creek Indian Reservation decades ago, my grandfather Renville said, ''Granddaughter, you are lucky to have the many opportunities that will come to you now, but remember ... don't do anything that will bring shame to your relatives.''
That was a period of time when we knew what shame meant. Do we still?
Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Crow Creek Sioux, is professor emerita of Native American studies at Eastern Washington University, Cheney, Wash., and visiting professor at Arizona State University, Tempe, Ariz. Her new book is ''New Indians, Old Wars,'' from the University of Illinois Press. She makes her home in the Black Hills of South Dakota.