See Oklahoma through a Native lens at this new museum

Thirty years in the making, Oklahoma City’s First Americans Museum tells history through the lens of the region’s tribal peoples.

“Touch to Above,” by Cherokee artists Demos Glass and Bill Glass Jr., rises above the entrance of Oklahoma’s new First Americans Museum. The open hand represents the universal Native American gesture for “welcome.” The museum is a collaborative project featuring Native artists, architecture, and history.
Photograph courtesy First Americans Museum

The vision for the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City was always ambitious. The center was established to promote the unique cultures, history, contributions, and resilience of the First American Nations in Oklahoma. Three decades of planning went into its September launch, and its debut exhibitions make evident that the story the museum tells is epic in scope.

“This is a museum presented through a truly Native narrative,” says James Pepper Henry, the museum’s executive director and vice-chairman of the Kaw Nation. “What we’ve done here is show the collective histories of the tribes and the common circumstances that brought the tribes here to Oklahoma.”

Sharing those stories was no easy task. As the museum notes, only a few tribal nations were indigenous to the vast area. But as a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, more than 100,000 Native Americans were forced from their ancestral homelands to Indian Territory, or what is now known as Oklahoma (the state’s name comes from two Choctaw words—“Okla” and “Homma,” meaning Red People).

During this migration, called the Trail of Tears, more than 15,000 people perished of disease, starvation, and exposure to extreme weather. By the time the state entered the union in 1907, it contained a patchwork of peoples from the woodlands to the plains and plateaus. This collective trauma is one focus of the narratives told at the museum.

“Oklahoma, or Indian Territory, was originally meant to be a giant internment camp,” says Pepper Henry. “It’s a brutal history, and we haven’t shied away from telling those stories. But it’s also a story of perseverance. It’s a story of survival. We’ve overcome a lot of those challenges, and now we’re reclaiming our cultural life ways. We are not relics of the past. We are still here, and we’re moving forward into the future. This museum celebrates that.”

Museum with a mission

Central to the museum’s mission is to honor each of Oklahoma’s 39 nations, which represent more than 60 percent of all enrolled Native Americans in the U.S. Although many tribes have established their own cultural centers, the First Americans Museum aims for an inclusive narrative of Oklahoma and the U.S. through the eyes of its Native population.

The biggest challenge was telling the story of each of these 39 nations equally, says Pepper Henry, who served as an associate director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.  

“Our goal is to make the museum more culturally relevant within our own communities,” he says. Toward that end, Native American curators and staff consulted with each nation to develop the collection.

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The living histories of the regional tribes are just as vital to the museum’s mission as documenting the past. Each exhibit—including first-person narratives and multi-media experiences—guides travelers through the cultural diversity and authentic history of First Americans residing in Oklahoma. It also spotlights the contemporary culture they still have.

Bill Anoatubby, governor of Oklahoma’s Chickasaw Nation, says that the museum represents a continuity of contributions, heritage, and wisdom from the tribal nations that have long inhabited this land.

“While some tribes have called this area home since time immemorial, most tribal nations established a new homeland here due to forces beyond their control,” Anoatubby says. “Our citizens and our governments have persevered through allotment, attempts at assimilation, and denials of our right to self-determination. Today, our tribal nations continue to play a significant role in moving our state forward as we continue to focus on a brighter future for our children and grandchildren.”

Collective narratives 

The museum has been a long time coming. In 1994, Oklahoma Senator and Seminole/Creek tribal member Enoch Kelly Haney and the late Senator Robert M. Kerr authored a bill that created the state agency responsible for building and developing an American Indian cultural center and museum.

Construction began in 2006 but came to an abrupt halt six years later when the $90 million state funds raised for the project ran out. The 175,000-square-foot facility—located on Native land originally belonging to the Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole Nations—was only halfway done, but the state refused to pour money into the future museum. The project was revived in 2016 when the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma agreed to partner with Oklahoma City to meet the total $175 million needed to finish the build.

The saga of its construction is redeemed by the stories the museum’s collection shares and the rich symbolism of its design.

Most of the details in the museum’s architecture and interior reflect Native American influence. The stone wall leading to the museum’s main entrance represents the original inhabitants—the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole—of Oklahoma. The 21st-century mound built around the museum pays homage to the prehistoric Mound Builder cultures and aligns with the cardinal directions. The 10 columns at the entrance symbolize the 10 miles Native communities walked along the Trail of Tears each day. Architects designed the Origins Theater to look like a giant piece of pottery traditionally made by the Caddo people.

The two exhibitions on view are the culmination of 30 years of research and tribal consultations, says Shoshana Wasserman, the museum’s deputy director. “These cultural materials were created with love, with purpose. They mean things to Native people who may walk through here,” she says.

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The “Winiko: Life of an Object” exhibit includes 144 cultural artifacts on a 10-year loan from the Mark Raymond Harrington Collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Each tribe chose at least three objects—made between 1909 and 1914— to represent their nation in the collection.

The “OKLA HOMMA” exhibition focuses on first-person narratives and traditional folktales told via video and audio. “The stories that we are telling are stories that have been passed down in our own families,” says Wasserman.

Wasserman is Muscogee (Creek) from the Thlopthlocco Tribal Town. Her uncle, Reverend Alvin Deer, shares a story on one of the videos about his grandmother singing him to sleep. The lullaby she sang was created during the forced march to Indian Territory and is put to the melody of the military bugles that terrified children at the time.

“When our Native people come through here, they’re going to recognize these people. You can walk through this gallery and hear voices and know exactly who’s talking,” Wasserman says. “My hope is that every person who walks into this museum finds a connection.”

Heide Brandes is a freelance writer and editor based in Oklahoma City. Follow her adventures on Twitter and Instagram.

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