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Marshall McKay. Photo courtesy the Family of Marshall McKay. 

A Tribute to Marshall McKay

We present below a collection of photographs and Autry Museum remembrances in the honor of our dear Chairman Emeritus, Marshall McKay (1952-2020). For an overview of his life, leadership, and vision, please read the Los Angeles Times' article on his legacy.


JACKIE AUTRY

Over the past several days many words have been written about Marshall McKay and his remarkable life. Simply put, Marshall was an inspiration to me and to everyone at the Autry Museum. From the moment Marshall joined the Autry’s Board in 2007 he became actively involved and wholeheartedly dedicated himself to the Museum’s success. He was more than willing to shoulder responsibility as Chair of the Board, and he had the knowledge and capability to do so. Marshall was an extraordinary leader and thus people were willing to follow his lead. He was a generous and beautiful soul and I will miss him with all my heart.

Jackie Autry
Founding Chair and Life Trustee
Autry Museum of the American West


RICK WEST

Whatever I planned to address in the first of the new year, 2021—which all of us hope will be far better than 2020 whatever the interim challenges—has been overtaken by the tragic passing in the last week of 2020 by a lion of the Autry Board and its Chairman Emeritus, Marshall McKay. He was a beloved personal friend and colleague for almost the entirety of my career as a museum director, and I personally mourn this loss—at my very core—and will to the end of my days.

If you have not seen it already, please read the Los Angeles Times’s obituary—which appropriately turned into more of a feature story—written by Times’ culture columnist and critic, Carolina Miranda. She took great care in reporting and writing the story, and the result is something that means a great deal to Marshall’s family, to everyone else who knew or loved him, and to me. It captures perfectly the vast breadth and depth of his legacy as a gifted and visionary leader of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation and of Native America for an entire generation.

The piece is so wonderfully whole in that regard that I need not repeat here what it already says so elegantly, and wish, instead, to comment now more specifically on why the bigness, boldness, and courage of his transformative vision had such salutary and abiding impact on the Autry. In addition, as a friend who knew him well long before our conjoining at the Autry, I would like to note—and honor—the remarkable intangibles of personality and character that so enhanced the demonstrated tangibles of his remarkable life’s journey and its multiple and unprecedented accomplishments and achievements.

Marshall, as a Native leader, was what I call and highly value based upon my own life experience, a skilled and thoughtful "boundary navigator." I should begin by explaining the term, which is my own invention and intended as high compliment. His courageous leadership, inside his Native community and beyond, had two cutting edges rather than one. He was raised in his Native community and valued its culture and traditions highly and faithfully, but he also had the remarkable gift of intersecting with non-Native communities and interests with immense success, empowering in multiple ways his own.

Genetics and upbringing had great impact on Marshall’s extensive gifts in this regard. He had the blessed advantage of his mother, Mabel McKay, as a role model for what it meant to be a leader. She was a brilliant and legendary artist, probably the finest basket weaver of her generation if not, honestly, all of California basket-weaving history. But she took that soul of artistry to many, many other places during her long and distinguished life—she was a famed teacher and mentor, a spiritual leader, key knowledge bearer for her Native community, and “ambassador-at-large” to non-Native America.

Sharon Rogers-McKay and Marshall McKay at opening, The Life and Work of Mabel McKay, 2016. Photo by Danielle Klebanow. 

In a profound way, she, too, was a boundary navigator, and her sword of leadership also had two sharp edges. She was a highly respected leader in her community, yes, but she had no fear in taking on external and non-Native interests that threatened Native cultural wholeness and continuance. She opposed, vociferously, State-sponsored water reclamation projects that would inundate historic Native land areas where the plants necessary for basket-weaving grew. And from there, it was only a short distance to her involvement in environmental issues that she correctly argued should be the concern not only of Native communities, but, instead, of all communities. In other words, while she was completely grounded in her own Native community and traditions, she also felt it essential to cross political and cultural boundaries to engage and change the views and actions of others—and with intention and frequent success.

Marshall McKay was cut from this same splendid tapestry of leadership gifts and skills—and they were on display and in motion on the ground, every day, as an Autry Trustee, Board Chairman, and Board Chairman Emeritus. He agreed to Trustee positions at the Autry Museum of the American West and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian because he believed they were relevant to Native cultural continuance.  His was a values-based trifecta: (1) if museums purported to tell stories through their collections, then the originating voices of Native people themselves should be bona fide, authoritative, and active participants in the telling; (2) in their interpretive and programmatic practice, museums can and should do much to empower the narrative of Native communities as living rather than dead or dying historical and ethnographic remnants; and (3) museums should proactively use their cultural assets—collections—and human assets and expertise to facilitate and empower both of the foregoing.

Examples of the application of this conceptual and intellectual framework to the work of the Autry during Marshall’s tenure on the Board are too numerous to list here, but they were legion and institutionally change-making. And on a lighter note, notwithstanding our lengthy and abiding personal friendship, in his ineffably gentle, kind, and supportive way, he would remind his President and CEO at the Autry from time to time what was just noise and what was actually important.

And that statement brings me to what I consider a very major arrow in Marshall’s leadership quiver: his grasp of the intangibles of leadership. I have been aware of but not surprised by the number of notes I have received from Autry staff, from all parts of the museum, who described Marshall as their friend and who appreciated that he treated them as the same. Marshall possessed a capacity for human empathy, connection, and kindness that seemed inexhaustible—and a consummate sense of humility that one does not always find in “leaders” with his litany of notable tangible achievements. It was uncommon in my experience and, in the end, is that part of him and his persona and character that I am most pained to be without for the future.

But, in the end—and here is the place of hope and optimism where I will conclude—I also believe Marshall himself would be pained if any of us lingered too long in the shadowlands of personal or collective grief, however deeply and legitimately felt, and, with that ironic wit of his and its accompanying soft chuckle, he would urge us on. So let’s take my sense of what his word would be and apply his blessed and abundant legacy forthwith to the work of the institution he loved and supported so faithfully and selflessly. In that way, we will remain the friend to him that he was to us while he was among us—a gentle guiding voice now stilled but nevertheless forever omnipresent.

In loving memory and respect,

Rick West (Cheyenne)
President and CEO
Autry Museum of the American West


DAVID CARTWRIGHT

Marshall was a dreamer and visionary in ways that I only now have come to comprehend fully. I didn’t fully appreciate that part of Marshall initially in the everyday friendship of an Autry Trustee colleague at Autry functions, and in some of the more personal moments that occurred frequently in our collective visits to places like Chaco Canyon, the Santa Barbara Mission, the Yocha Dehe reservation and casino, Canyon de Chelly, Juneau AK, restaurants in Los Angeles and Santa Fe, and so many other places including, of course, the Autry Museum itself.

Sharon Rogers-McKay, John Gray, and Marshall McKay in Canyon de Chelly, 2009.  Photo by David Cartwright. 

I’d like to share some stories about those personal moments, but first it is important to reflect on that first, different story; that of Marshall the dreamer and visionary. Because, while we have lost a valued friend, the loss of a dreamer and visionary strikes me as worth a much longer string of curse words toward this virus plague. 

Among Marshall’s dreams was the transformation of the Yocha Dehe and other Native people from loss and powerlessness to cultural restoration and enrichment, from economic emptiness to economic strength, from separation to a spirited new identity and prominent place within the larger community, and from subjugation to sovereignty, and all that means to so many Native people throughout California and the West.

So much that mattered to Marshall was at the “micro” level. What could these dreams mean to individuals, to their lives and to their future? And how could these dreams transform the past without sacrificing the values and sacred history of the ancestors?

No reflection on Marshall can be whole, however, without the stories of everyday encounters. My relationship with him can best be summed up by the admonishment of former Autry President John Gray, who would correctly warn staff and other Trustees, “It’s risky to put Marshall and David next to one another.”

One memory comes to mind immediately. During our visit to the Santa Barbara mission years ago, in what was supposed to be a relatively straightforward (albeit canned) history tour of the premises, I recall our tour leader having to silence Marshall and me, as we were whispering away in the back of the group, admittedly in a somewhat sharp tone. What we were discussing was not in fact a laughing matter, however, as Marshall was sharing with me a few choice observations about the atrocities committed against Native peoples at such places. We were privately remarking how the ghosts of the past haunted the ostensibly solemn and holy nature of the mission.

Marshall was first and foremost an advocate for Native people, but part of what I appreciated about him was his ability and willingness to let others into his circle as well. Even though I was an outsider to the struggle, through his deft, at times, dark humor and empathy, he had the gift of so clearly communicating what he felt as a Native person at such places. In other words, after spending just five minutes with Marshall, it was nearly impossible for any non-Native person to avoid becoming an ally.

But mostly in these periodic travels, we were just two rogues observing history and adding the commentary good Autry Trustees bring to the table. Though captains of industry we might have been, Marshall and I were definitely observing from “the back of the classroom,” in the very best sense of that phrase. (At times Sharon would join us there, though as often as not she would rightly roll her eyes at us.)

During our annual Board Retreat one year, this time to Chaco, the Autry had attempted to rent just a regular school bus (we have simple tastes at the Autry) to shuttle the Trustees to Chaco Canyon for a special tour. Apparently, however, all the normal buses being spoken for, the Autry had no choice but to rent what appeared to be a high school prom party bus, complete with flashing LEDs and booming stereo.

Needless to say, disco-balls swinging and wine glasses shattering, as what was clearly not an off-road vehicle lurched precariously over a dirt road around boulders and cacti, Marshall, Sharon, and I (along with quite a number of other Trustees) verbally embraced the strange interior and laughed loudly in the back as John Gray and the other Trustees tried to keep the occasion more dignified up front as we all bounced along. When the air conditioning unit finally broke loose and fell onto Sharon’s head, luckily without injury, Marshall asked John in a very hopeful manner if this was what they should all expect similar on future Trustee adventures.

Marshall often enjoyed introducing people and putting them together even and perhaps especially when such connections would help the Autry and create new friends. I remember, before a different, more straightforward bus ride, his simple introduction of me to then Autry Trustee Anthony Pico (Viejas tribal chair): “Sit with Cartwright on the bus, you’ll like him.” And, then began a memorable two hours of very personal discussion that I will never forget.

Marshall was a listener before his advocacy. A conciliator before supporting a cause. A voice for tolerance, first, and ask questions later. A friend first. Unassuming and without the condescension so often associated with powerful people. A builder of bridges. Someone who did not flinch from memory. Irreverent and with a full sense of the ironies of modern times when measured against the often unfortunate events of the past. And in the end, someone who cared deeply, and never forgot the things that really mattered.

We will miss him greatly.

David Cartwright
Chairman of the Board of Trustees
Autry Museum of the American West


LYNN VALBUENA

Our hearts are saddened that our dear friend, Marshall McKay is no longer with us, but we know he is still with us in spirit.

It is such a great loss to lose a friend who was an exceptional tribal leader who began his career in tribal politics in the 1980’s and continued his leadership career with many other organizations, both tribal and non-tribal. This is what a leader does. Marshall has always shown kindness, generosity, and compassion to others.

Marshall and I have been friends for over three decades. I met Marshall in 1985. He and I served on many Boards and Committees together beginning in the mid-1980s. The first was the CNIGA (California Nations Indian Gaming Association). In the 1980s it was called the California-Nevada Indian Gaming Association because tribal gaming was not legal at that time in California without having a gaming compact. Marshall was Chair of CNIGA in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s and a very strong tribal leader who was very instrumental and who worked diligently with the California Tribes and their tribal leaders, to fight the difficult challenges so our California Tribes could have tribal gaming. It took years, but eventually, through collaboration and unity with other tribal leaders and their tribes, gaming compacts were negotiated and the rest is history.

Marshall and I served on the NMAI Board together too, while being on the Board of Trustees for the Autry Museum. We both termed out at the same time with NMAI. Then in 2007, Marshall asked me to consider being a trustee for the Autry Museum. Marshall’s passion for artistry and museum work was so amazing to me and Marshall wanted us to work together and educate others about Native culture, cultural preservation and tribal sovereignty. He would make every effort and find every opportunity to do so, and I can distinctly recall at one of our Autry Retreats after dinner (almost 15 years ago) that we had an opportunity to talk about Native culture and sovereignty. I still remember the trustees who were present, including the late Frank Ulf, saying thank you for answering all of their questions about the tribes because they did not know or have a full understanding of tribal issues and tribal sovereignty. It was a great night and I will never forget that memory.

From Left to Right: Rosemary Morillo (Former Chair, Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians), Marshall McKay, and Lynn Valbuena. 

Marshall was so passionate, dedicated, and committed to the work he did for the Autry Museum. He loved his work and always willing to go above and beyond to make things happen and get the work done. I was so happy the day Marshall introduced me to Sharon over 20 years ago. Both Marshall and Sharon have made a huge difference in peoples’ lives, as well as to those who have had the opportunity to work with them at the Autry Museum.

Whenever Marshall would call or text me, he would call me his sister. My husband Steve and I will always reminisce about the great times we spent together with Marshall and Sharon and at Indian Market in Santa Fe, NM. We will never forget those days and the fun times we had together. We will always cherish our friendship with Marshall and Sharon and love them both dearly. Marshall will always be remembered and will always hold a place close to our hearts.

Marshall would always tell me, “Lynn, you are my mentor,” and I would always respond back and correct him by saying, “No Marshall, you are my mentor.”

Lynn Valbuena
Former Chairwoman
San Manuel Band of Mission Indians


JOHN GRAY

Marshall McKay said more in his presence than in words. His subtle smile implied understanding without the need to verbalize what he was thinking, or what he wanted us to think.

The Autry Museum was growing into an institution that was able to embrace the convergence of cultures. Founded by Jackie Autry and Joanne Hale, who were driven to present the stories of all peoples in the American West, as well as the wonderful heritage of Gene Autry, and cowboy culture. Together with the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, and its truly expansive collections, the stage was set to publicly and visually embrace all, to tell the American Story through the lens of the American West.

The first few conversations with Sharon and Marshall revolved around America and the American West, with such a deep appreciation of the contradictions and complications of our shared history. There was also the joy in wrestling with the ideas and artifacts that could tell the stories of the West, truthfully, comfortably, and with multiple insights.

Sharon and Marshall chaired one of the great Autry Galas, and the focus on Native Artists and performers was appreciated, but the true revelation was his emphasis on the contemporary West. Similarly, visiting Marshall’s tribal homelands and members of his tribe, we learned much about the path of Californian Indians. But we really learned about Marshall as the son of Mabel, and through those stories Marshall made manifest her life, her gifts, and her humanness.

When Marshall became the Chairman of the Board, the move was both symbolic and substantive. He knew and provided the leadership to work with Native Peoples and their collections that the Autry had the privilege and responsibility to conserve and protect. He expanded our shared vision to embrace Native peoples in their own voice, and their very presence in all aspects of the museum. He did this without any exclusion of the past or the present and fully loved the Autry, as it was and as it will be. Institutions have values that transcend individuals. But some individuals propel institutions to their values.

Upon retirement, Sharon and Marshall presented me with a breathtaking handmade hunting knife. I never asked why.

John Gray
President Emeritus
Autry Museum of the American West


STEPHEN ARON

I’m trained as a historian to take the long view, which makes me less comfortable making pronouncements about lives and events in the immediate horizon. Yet, I’m confident that when the next generation writes its histories of California and California Indians, Marshall McKay will deservedly loom large. He will be credited as both visionary and doer, who by his dreams and his deeds ushered an economic and cultural renaissance for the Yoche Dehe Wintun nation. More broadly, he will be recognized for his role in what we can hope will be a continuing revitalization of California Indian peoples and cultures.

McKay’s role at the Autry and its significance to the museum’s development merits tributes too. However, future historians who depend on published sources will get only a portion of the story. Newspaper reports of the time detailing McKay’s ascent to the chairship of the Autry’s Board of Trustees focused on how an Indian now headed the cowboy museum’s board, and largely left it at that. Certainly, McKay’s tenure at the helm of the Autry board did bring a deeper recognition about the obligations and opportunities for collaborations with American Indian communities that the museum’s American Indian collections entailed. The Autry, though, as McKay understood, was much more than a cowboy museum at its inception and, it had become more expansive and inclusive in the decades that followed its birth and its merger with the Southwest. Under McKay’s stewardship, the Autry embraced even more decisively its mission to bring together the stories of all peoples of the American West, with all of the obligations and opportunities these entailed.

Not long before McKay fell ill, we had a Zoom meeting. I shared with him my dreams and what I hope will be my deeds at the Autry. His feedback was so valuable to me. His death deprives us all of his counsel. But as historians, we can all draw insights from the records he left and be inspired by the life he led.   

Stephen Aron
UCLA Department of History
Incoming President, Autry Museum of the American West