The 39 tribal nations headquartered across Oklahoma — many in rural areas – have a new way to share their stories and cultures with other Americans. This week marks the opening of the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City.
The 175,000-square-foot facility sits on a 40-acre site along the Oklahoma River in the state’s capital and largest city. It opened Saturday, September 18.
“I hope our audiences as they come through – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – I hope they can see this exhibition is a love letter to our community,” said heather ahtone, senior curator at the museum who is enrolled in the Chickasaw Nation and a descendant of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. “They can see how much we want to celebrate our cultures and our diversity and the strength and resilience our ancestors had but also how much we are looking forward to our future that we can build here.”
Visitors are greeted upon arrival with “Touch to Above,” a large-scale stainless steel piece by Bill Glass Jr. and Demos Glass, father and son Cherokee artists.
“We’re trying to let art be intertwined with architecture,” Demos Glass said in a phone interview. The piece represents worshiping the creator behind the sun.
“This is such an amazing facility,” Demos Glass said of the First Americans Museum. “It’s been a nice journey for the actual site to be finished.”
He added: “With a better understanding of different cultures, people can have more acceptance of different races and ethnicities and values, which can be good for society. That’s what this museum is about.”
Entering the Museum
As visitors enter the museum, they are welcomed with several exhibits, the signature one being OKLA HOMMA, which is two Choctaw words meaning Red People. The exhibit shares the history of the 39 tribal nations now residing in Oklahoma. Only a few tribal nations were indigenous to what is now Oklahoma; the rest were forcibly removed to the area.
“Most Americans receive a fairly light touch of teaching about the important role of First Americans within American history. We knew that we were going to need to provide substantial attention to that chronological story,” ahtone said.
The gallery is bounded on the east side with a timeline – the series of dates and facts and titles to reflect the most important events that brought the tribes into the Oklahoma landscape.
“The timeline has sort of an opposing experience,” she added. “We wanted to experience the first person’s lived experience. Because most of us as Native people feel we are not represented as people, but as sort of these historical events that you don’t think about the fact these were parents and grandparents who had to live these experiences.”
The Galleries – Three Chapters
The gallery is broken into sections, starting with the first chapter before European contact to the second chapter involving the Indian Removal Act and the third chapter beginning with Oklahoma statehood in 1907 to the present day.
“It (the Indian Removal Act) created a wave of forced relocations for all of our tribes, even those that were historically indigenous to this landscape were actually moved out of the way to make way for all the tribes coming from the East. We settled into our sort of tribal boundaries.” ahtone said. “Everybody in Oklahoma experienced relocation as an impact of the Indian Removal Act.”
The entire curatorial team are members of tribes in Oklahoma today, and the stories were deeply personal for those involved.
“We all carry with us a very personal responsibility. We know that the work we were doing was going to be judged not just by the public, but by our relatives – our grandparents – and so we really wanted to do our very best to our ability and capacity to push the envelope and work with a certain amount of courage and telling stories that are incredibly painful,” ahtone said.
At the same time, they worked to make the space compelling, engaging and encouraging to young people, especially young Native people.
The Power of Language
The First American Museum also features selections from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian as well as newly commissioned artworks. Objects in this area were reconnected with their original Indigenous names, and, on some occasions, reconnected with descendants of the original owners.
“Language is such a power point that people don’t even realize that by replacing the names that is part of the erasure of our Native people,” ahtone said. “And so these objects have metaphorically lived the same thing as our Indian people – in that they were removed from their home community, taken away and relocated.”
There will also be an area for families known as the FAMily Discovery Center. Though it was not yet opened during the opening weekend, it will eventually resemble a pop-up book, with animal guides that lead visitors through experiences designed to convey important cultural values such as respect, community, resilience and stewardship.
An on-site restaurant adds to the experience at the museum. Featuring Native-inspired cuisine, it combines traditional foods with a contemporary flare. A nearby cafe also offers delectable treats and coffee, including OGahPah Coffee from the Quapaw Nation.
A Collaborative Effort
Quapaw Nation Chairman Joseph T. Byrd said he is pleased to share the Quapaw Nation story and expand it throughout Indian Country, including the story of their coffee business. Secretary-Treasurer Guy Barker notes that the tribal coffee business is made up entirely of tribal nation members.
“Tribal nations still come together and we have partnerships for a common goal, and with this, the common goal is to have a world-class destination to show the rich and vibrant history of our people that we can call our own,” Byrd said of the First Americans Museum.
The museum is managed by a nonprofit corporation, the American Indian Cultural Center Foundation. The foundation was established in 1998. The public-private partnership is now being completed through a partnership between the State of Oklahoma and the City of Oklahoma City, with the help of a Chickasaw Nation subsidiary, the foundation and numerous donors.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., who sits on the board of the nonprofit foundation, said the museum helps tell a story that has not been told properly in the U.S.
He said he hopes visitors receive authentic information and depictions of tribes in terms of their history and culture.
“I think Americans need to understand that tribes are still here,” he said. “We have a very long and deep history that predates European contact, but we are very relevant in what goes on in the world today and our cultures are alive and lifeways are still being practiced.”
He noted that the timing of the museum’s opening comes at a point when there is greater understanding and appreciation for authentic Native American art.
“I think this museum taps into that and helps foster that,” he said. At the same time, there’s another side that says parts of history should not be highlighted.
“Those of us involved in this museum believe that we ought to understand history completely, and I think it’s important right now that we have institutions in place to help in that regard,” he added. “In terms of the significance of the place, people from around the country and around the world will come to understand what we already know – which is this is the home of 39 tribes and such a diverse landscape of Native voices and experiences and this is the place this museum ought to be.”