“It’s not pointing fingers. It’s more matter of fact,” says Leslie Halfmoon, a Caddo Nation citizen on the museum’s curatorial team and media coordinator. “It’s a gut punch at times but we couldn’t shy away from it.”
The 175,000-square-foot museum occupies a site that was part of the great land run of 1889. The museum was more than 30 years and $175 million in the making. It tells the stories of the 39 tribal nations in Oklahoma.
The state is home to more than 374,744 tribal members, nearly 10 percent of its total population of 3.9 million, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. Tens of thousands of Native Americans were relocated here to the land known as Indian Territory until it was granted statehood in 1907.
Funding for the museum has come through the state, Oklahoma City, private donors, Oklahoma Humanities, the tribes themselves, and federal funds. Construction began in 2006, stopped due to funding issues in 2012, and was finally completed for the opening in September of 2021.
The grounds are designed to honor mound-building cultures with the seasons in mind. In the winter months, the setting sun filters through tunnels in the mound. Alternatively, during the summer solstice, the sun lines up with the museum’s entrance. Besides upper and lower galleries, the grounds include theaters, a children’s discovery area, a coffee shop, a restaurant, a gift shop, and outdoor gathering places.
Heather ahtone, the museum’s lead curator, says most Native American museums are focused on individual tribes. First Americans Museum’s mission is different.
“Our task is unique in that we are telling the stories of 39 tribes in Oklahoma. This is an incredibly complex story to tell,” says ahtone, who is of Choctaw and Chickasaw heritage. Her team members came from various tribes, who, nevertheless, found consensus on objects and media to tell the story of survival and resistance.
“There were days when we just had to go into our corners and cool off,” says ahtone. “But we didn’t have to pull our punches.”
Most of the museum’s curatorial efforts came during the pandemic years, which made obtaining items from closed museums and even the National Archives a challenge, ahtone says. Visitors to the second-floor exhibition “WINIKO: Life of an Object” can view artifacts that were taken from families in Oklahoma and placed in the Smithsonian.
In some instances, the Oklahoma families could be traced and reunited with heirloom items. Clothing, blankets, ceremonial drums, and beaded works are on display on the museum’s second floor. Tribal member Edward Red Eagle Jr. and his family members were invited to see his great grandfather’s traditional Osage coat before it was put on display at the museum. It was obtained by John Herrington, a collector in the early 1900s. Herrington believed Indians would become extinct and traveled across Indian Territory buying anything and everything from Indian people.
“This is the first time they are coming home to Oklahoma,” says Halfmoon. “It’s so wonderful to get the tribal communities back with their objects. It’s been wonderful for the families and has opened up a world of information for the Smithsonian representatives who are here.”
Gallery visitors are greeted with an orientation film highlighting varied tribal origin tales, mostly explaining the universe and interconnectedness of all species, including humans. Video screens feature university professors explaining topics ranging from tribal sovereignty to assimilation.
A sign coding system of red, black, and gray lets visitors know immediately if historical events are considered positive, negative, or neutral for Native Americans. Maps depict the relocation of entire tribes, legalized by the 1830 Indian Removal Act. Between 1830 and 1907 the federal government seized more than 1.5 billion acres of Indian lands throughout the United States.
Christian missionaries started boarding schools for many of the tribal members forcibly moved to Oklahoma, further disconnecting children from their cultures and traditions. In the museum, the tribes have an opportunity to tell their own stories and offer a true exhibition of their cultures, such as with an area featuring stickball and another on powwows. A final section of the main gallery features Native American athletes and coaches, and military warriors from the Civil War to wars in the Middle East.
The long-awaited museum has been a boon for Oklahoma tourism for tribal members and others, according to John R. Johnson, governor of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe.
“I’m just thrilled with the way it’s turned out,” Johnson says. “We have the National Cowboy Hall of Fame up the road and now we have something for the Indigenous people.”
The idea of the museum came following the state’s 1989 celebration of the land run that opened up much of central Oklahoma to white settlers a century earlier. Oklahoma lawmakers put land acquisition money in a bond issue, but the proposal languished without more support or financing.
“It just sat there for years,” recalls former state Senator Cal Hobson. The museum planners “were awaiting signals from the legislature and the only signal we gave them was $5 million for the land.”
Another retired lawmaker, state Senator Enoch Kelly Haney, a Seminole tribe member and a noted artist, continually sought support for the museum with his fellow legislators.
“Kelly brought it up every year. He just wouldn’t let it die,” Hobson says. “They [the state] were in and then they were out. It took forever but the pieces finally came together, and we got it done.”