Oklahoma’s long-awaited, brand-new museum shares the untold stories of 39 tribes.
At sunrise on a cold November morning, on a plot of battered land along the southern bank of the Oklahoma River, where one of the largest-producing oil fields in the state of Oklahoma once stood, and after that, a site for motocross races, leaders and citizens of the 39 tribes in Oklahoma today, along with the governor and other state officials plus board members of a yet to be realized museum, finally saw hope. Despite the fact that the earth had sunk so low by then it had been declared a 100-year flood plain, more than a thousand people showed up to usher in a new future for the land and the people who once lived on it — to reclaim it as their own.
“It was an abused piece of property,” says Shoshana Wasserman, deputy director of the First Americans Museum. “We needed to bless this land for how it was going to serve in the future. We had to prepare it in a culturally significant way. We lit a new fire that day, and we invited the tribal leaders to bring ashes from the fires of their original homeland and we contributed all of that to the new fire that day. We still have those combined ashes.”
This September, 16 years after that first blessing of the land, the $175 million First Americans Museum is finally opening its doors to the public with two inaugural exhibitions that celebrate the rich and diverse history of the 39 different tribes in Oklahoma today. OKLA HOMMA, two Choctaw words that later became the state’s name, is an original, mixed media interactive exhibition that highlights the stories of the tribal peoples who lived in the area now known as Oklahoma. The second exhibition, WINIKO: Life of an Object — a collection of objects on a 10-year loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian — showcases 144 everyday cultural objects, “material culture” collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from tribes in Oklahoma.
“There are a total of 29 films between both exhibitions, and there are lots of interactive exhibits, too,” Wasserman says. “It’s not just walking through and seeing a bunch of cultural materials in cases.”
The two buildings that make up the First Americans Museum campus — the 4,000-square-foot FAM Center and the 175,000-square-foot museum — are as much a part of the story as what’s inside them. Seen from the sky, the negative space and the buildings themselves are organized around a theme of concentric circles: The buildings appear as arcs, all parts that make up the whole; the courtyard in the center is circular, and there’s an arched glass half-circle in the middle of the campus that takes its inspiration from a Wichita grass house. It all sits up against a manmade mound, with a massive plaza below.
Every aspect of the architecture was intentional. But before any of the plans could be deployed, there was massive cleanup: More than 7,000 tires and hundreds of old mattresses had been on the site and had to be removed. Then 45,000 semi-truckloads of dirt were brought in to build up the FAM mound. As big a challenge as those undertakings presented, the architectural and exhibit design team faced the even bigger one: how to represent each of 39 tribes in the museum’s design.
“We get seen as a monolithic entity,” Wasserman says. “We’re putting all 39 tribes in one space and trying to tell a collective story. The architects were perplexed. When you have 39 tribes and 12 different linguistic families, it was a challenge to even find the color palette. One color to one tribe means something else to another. How do you balance the colors and motifs? They anguished over it because they felt the heavy weight of being responsible to these tribes. I am Muscogee and specifically from Thlopthlocco Tribal Town, and these stories are personal to us. You couldn’t tell a story by dedicating a certain amount of square feet to each tribe. So the team of architects and staff met with the tribal communities, and together we came up with a thematic approach. How are we alike and what things show our distinctions? From the exhibitions to the architecture to the landscape design, we wanted to show this.”
Now sitting high above the floodplain, the First Americans Museum property was designed and built to honor the collective traditions of all of the tribes. “One commonality that came through was this connection to water, wind, earth, and fire — all of the life-sustaining elements,” Wasserman says. “All of those elements are in the ethos of this project. We are on the Oklahoma River, and we have a ceremonial east-west entrance because in many lifeways, doorways always face east to greet the new day.”
Like their ancestors have done for thousands of years, everything was oriented to align with the cardinal directions, and the overall site is a cosmological clock. The winter solstice sun sets through the tunnel that is embedded into the newly built 21st-century mound to the west of the museum, an homage to the prehistoric Mound Builder cultures. “Oklahoma has a rich legacy of mound-building cultures dating back to around A.D. 500,” Wasserman says. “The First Americans Museum mound connects our past with the present.”
How are we alike and what things show our distinctions? From the exhibitions to the architecture to the landscape design, we wanted to show this. - Shoshana Wasserman
The new mound ramps up to a 90-foot peak offering views of the surrounding region and cradling Festival Plaza, an expansive
area three football fields in size for special events throughout the year. Then there are the circles, symbolic of the cyclical aspect of the seasons, planets in orbit, and life itself. “If you look, you’ll see a smaller circle, which is the Courtyard and the Hall of The People is the center, and to the west is a larger circle called the Festival Plaza with the mound surrounding the plaza,” Wasserman says. “It’s about circularity. Native people don’t have much of a connection to linear time. Everything is seasonal and cyclical. When one person dies, another is born. There’s this continuum, and we continue to travel in this circular manner. That’s why the architects created a curvilinear structure. Circular formations are often found in American Indian social and ceremonial activities that take place in circular arenas.”
Of the two exhibitions on view, OKLA HOMMA is the one that the First Americans Museum’s curatorial staff spent nearly three decades researching, in order to share the 39 tribes’ various histories over a 500-year timespan in a way that is both captivating and authentic. “The OKLA HOMMA story is rich and diverse, and it’s media-rich and interactive,” Wasserman says.
When you first walk into the gallery of this exhibition space, you find yourself in an area called Crossroads. Then you make a decision: You either go upstairs to WINIKO: Life of an Object or you go to the OKLA HOMMA exhibition.
“In the OKLA HOMMA exhibition, you begin in this incredible theater space, a semicircle that we call our Origins Theater,” Wasserman says. “We take a visitor through four different archetypal origin stories from our tribes. We want a visitor to understand that we have different worldviews that stem from our origin stories and continue to inform us today.”
Even the space itself is symbolic. “The theater looks like a giant piece of Caddo pottery,” she says. “It’s exquisite. It was a collaborative effort between Caddo artist and potter Jeri Redcorn, who created the exterior design; Navajo artist Marwin Begaye, who helped translate the design into large-scale vector art; and Muscogee artist Starr Hardridge, who executed the work on the surface of the structure. The wall looks like a piece of pottery and pays tribute to the fact that the Caddo people were always inhabitants here.”
Across from the theater is a two-story wall made of copper, and screen-printed Indigenous Brilliance, another public art commission depicting the stories of the past, present, and future of the tribes, created by Cherokee multimedia artist Joseph Erb. “It’s made of copper because in mound-building cultures, copper was frequently found in their mounds,” Wasserman says.
From there, the journey into the historical path of the tribes begins, divided into three different eras of time. “In each section, there’s a timeline that gives you the chronology and what was taking place at that time. There are also corresponding circular areas devoted to the human stories and the tribal values; and ‘moving fires,’ an auditory experience with stories and songs that adds another layer to the experience.”
Lush, green, and pristine, the first section, titled ANCIENT ROOTS: We Were Always Here, is designed to feel like you’re walking through a forest. “Before European contact in the 1400s, all of the tribes have separate distinct communities and are also forming alliances with one another,” she says.
The second section, UPROOTED: Ripped From Our Homelands, is dedicated to the era of time when the many removals suffered by Indigenous peoples were taking place. The space appropriately feels dark and oppressive. “I am from Thlopthlocco Tribal Town, and our town alone had two different removal periods and two different routes,” Wasserman says. “Some went to the North and some went to the South. In this 77-year timespan, the most important image isn’t just the one that you always see of people walking in the snow [on a singular Trail of Tears]. We feature a large video screen of people today, sharing very personal removal stories that are part of our family histories."
Wasserman shares her own family story as an example. “My uncle tells a story on one of the videos about his grandmother rocking him and singing a lullaby when he was young; it was created when our relatives were marched to Indian Territory. Our babies were scared and crying, so the moms created this lullaby to the tune of the military bugle so our babies could be soothed. They made something beautiful and soothing out of something so awful. Every time my uncle tells this story, everyone wells up with tears and emotions. Our matriarchs had so much love in their hearts for their frightened babies that they created a survival lullaby song. That is what resilience looks like. We want the visitor to experience what it means to lose half of your tribe along the way, to end up in a place that’s completely foreign, because you’ve been uprooted and dislocated.” Between 1830 and 1907, the United States seized more than 1.5 billion acres from First Americans.
The third section, TRANSPLANTED: Growing Strong, is brighter and more optimistic. “It’s about new roots being established and regrowth and features a visual environment of budding trees. Statehood has happened, and there have been wars, and federal policies have shifted, forcing tribes to react to these policy shifts, and yet we clung to our cultural lifeways and practices.”
The next space, Community Voices, features oversize images of different landscapes throughout Oklahoma. Along with the landscapes are ‘peoplescapes,’ highlighting the inhabitants of those corresponding landscapes. “In five locations within this space, there are also soundscapes where you can actually hear the ambient nature sounds in these regions of the state,” Wasserman says. “The bench seating is in the shape of the state of Oklahoma. It gives visitors a chance to pause — we’re all here now in Oklahoma.”
WINIKO: Life of an Object is an exhibition of cultural materials that were part of the Mark Raymond Harrington collection from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. There are three sections or themes in this exhibit: Creation, From Collecting to Decolonizing, and Our Cultural Continuum. The 144 pieces include approximately three for each of the 39 tribes. The museum also commissioned pieces to be created by contemporary tribal artists.
Most of the objects are everyday items. A carrying case for a baby from the Comanche Nation. A handwoven belt brought from one of the tribes’ original homelands on their journey to Oklahoma. A Shawnee football, that, upon consultation with the tribal community, didn’t belong on display. There, an empty mount will be shown instead, along with an explanation of why it’s not there.
“There was a tremendous amount of tribal consultation to understand what items would make up their story,” Wasserman says. “These cultural objects weren’t made to be beautiful objects in a case. The carrying case for the baby was made with a purpose: to carry a child with. It was made with love and purpose and in an ornate and beautiful way because you treasure that child. That’s what’s so special about this exhibition — people will relate to the cultural materials in different ways because they’ll see what they mean to us, the tribal people who actually used them.”
To help visitors have a better understanding of the cultural significance of the individual pieces on view in WINIKO: Life of an Object, objects are not merely shown, but their own journeys detailed. Visitors learn how that journey impacted the tribe. Even more striking, visitors absorb the impact of the sudden absence of these items, around the turn of the century, when tribal members facing removal had to sell their heirloom and ceremonial objects out of necessity.
“Here’s this moccasin created by this tribe for this reason — then all of a sudden, there’s this disruption. These objects went on this unbelievable journey. Some went to Penn State and then New York and Suitland, Maryland, before returning to Oklahoma today. What is that like when a cultural material is removed from a tribe of origin? We give the visitor a way to look behind the scenes of the museum and look at each object from a tribal perspective.”
People will relate to the cultural materials in different ways because they’ll see what they mean to us, the tribal people who actually used them. -Shoshana Wasserman
The last part of the Smithsonian exhibition shows how these cultural tribal objects link the past to the present in a profound way. “Let’s say that moccasin was created at the turn of the century and we still have makers from that same family today that continue to make these moccasins for this purpose. We want to show that these aren’t relics from the past but things that continue on and thrive. There are four or five items in this collection that we will reunite with the descendants of the original maker.”
In the last 16 years, the name of what is now the First Americans Museum changed four times. The state agency is called the Native American Cultural Center and Educational Authority. The museum was the American Indian Cultural Center, which later became the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum. In 2019, it was decided that it needed to be changed again.
“That’s why this museum rebranded itself as First Americans Museum,” Wasserman says. “It was a bold move, but we wanted to emphasize that we have always been here. This has always been Indian Country — even before this was the United States of America. We are the first Americans, the first people of this continent, so that became very important to us.”
September 18 is the museum’s official opening day. A Muscogee citizen and Tulsa-born United States poet laureate Joy Harjo will participate to commemorate the opening. Then the doors will open to the public, and the story of the 39 tribes in Oklahoma will be shared.
“I hope that every person who walks into this museum can find something that they can connect to,” Wasserman says. “It’s not about shoving our history down their throat, but about seeing things differently and with a different worldview. I hope that everybody who walks to the top of that mound can walk away with a different view of their own life — and ours, too.”
Just a few miles south of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, the new First Americans Museum sits at the crossroads of Interstates 35, 40, 235, and 44. Find out more about First Americans Museum at famok.org.
From our August/September 2021 issue
Photography: (All images) courtesy First Americans Museum