Rick West, founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian, speaks to museum studies class at UNCP

Nancy Strickland Fields (left) with Lumbee Tribal Chairman John Lowery, Rick West and Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings at the Museum of the Southeast American Indian

Considered one of the most vocal students in Nancy Strickland Fields’ museum studies class––UNC Pembroke senior Angelina Henhawk––sat in stunned silence last week as Rick West was a guest lecturer.

West, regarded as one of the most influential figures in Indian Country, is the founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and the current president of the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.

Freshman Onyx Thorp was also admittedly starstruck.

“It was invigorating to be in the same space as Mr. West and to have a conversation about the work he’s done and the work our class is trying to continue,” Thorp said. “I’m very privileged and honored to experience this at UNCP.”

A Harvard-trained historian and citizen of the Cheyenne Tribe in Oklahoma, West was an accomplished Indian law attorney before being appointed director of the NMAI in 1990. Fields worked briefly for West at the NMAI before he retired in 2007.

“There is a lot of good happening here at this institution,” West commented during a private luncheon and tour of UNCP’s Museum of the Southeast American Indian. “This museum fulfills one of the most important aspirations of the NMAI, which is helping Native communities, like Lumbee, strengthen their centers and museums because that’s where culture for the future is embedded.

“I’m grateful to have had this chance to visit, and I have every confidence that your museum leader will carve a path that will make us all proud,” West added.

Hearing Native speakers on campus evokes a sense of pride to Native students like senior Adam Strickland.

“This was an amazing opportunity to have such a powerful figure on campus and for him to share his story and describe the challenges he faced in his career,” Strickland said. “His experience shows what we as Native people can achieve when we put our mind to things.”

West has sat on United States presidential cabinets and received national and international awards for his groundbreaking work. West is the person who inspired Fields’ career.

“I’m a product of not only the standards and format he created, but I am walking in his trail. So, bringing that to UNCP was a golden opportunity for my students,” she said.

Fields, who has been museum director since 2017, is blazing her trail across Indian Country. Fields is the guest curator for To Take Shape and Meaning: Form and Design in American Indian Art––the first American Indian art exhibition in the history of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.

The exhibit features three-dimensional works from 75 American Indian artists from 50 tribes across the United States and Canada, including eight Native artists from North Carolina.

“This exhibition is a signal to our Native artists that you now have a seat at the table,” Fields said. “There is a relationship between us as Native communities in North Carolina and the NCMA––something that did not exist before this journey, and I am extremely proud of that.”

For those who wish to attend the public opening on Saturday, March 2, UNCP is providing free transportation. A charter bus will depart at 8:30 a.m. from Old Main. Space is limited. To reserve a seat, RSVP to blake.tyner@uncp.edu or visit here for more information.