By Allison Herrera
June 16, 2022
The First Americans Museum tells the collective history of the 39 tribes of Oklahoma, from their cosmological origins to the present day.
On the banks of the Oklahoma River, Oklahoma City’s new First Americans Museum aims to tell the story of the state’s 39 tribes through stories of creation, stories of struggle, and stories of survival and power.
“We have a lot to do together, but we are indigenous,” said indigenous rights activist Casey Camp Horinek. “It means we are strong, we are resilient and we are moving forward.”
The 175,000 square foot space is assembled with stories and interactive exhibits, like how to play the Handgame – a Native American Chunkey game inspired by Tron – and a Pow Wow van created by Choctaw and Kiowa artist Stephen Paul Judd.
Heather Ahtone, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs, says it’s important that a museum about Indigenous peoples be led by Indigenous peoples.
“To think about how we can set aside the strength of these stories to talk about the resilience of our community members, to talk about the tragedies of our stories, and also to talk about the beauty of each of our collective cultural backgrounds and aesthetic systems – those are things that it took throughout the installation, very careful construction,” Ahtone said. pushing in all the best ways we could bring to the project.”
Leslie Halfmoon, curatorial specialist and media coordinator for the museum, says the building’s circular design was intentional and meant to reflect the seasons. It features a 21st century mound that is a tribute to the many tribes of Oklahoma who are descended from the mound builder cultures.
“So to look at these ancestors as a template for incorporating these things into our site — this giant earthwork goes all the way up to a 90-foot peak and really the whole site is laid out like a cosmological clock,” Halfmoon said.
“It was a priority for us to celebrate the diversity of tribes that are here in Oklahoma,” Ahtone said. “It was really important to us because of the history of museums in causing a cultural erasure of our people to really highlight the living presence of our tribal community members.”
Galleries feature stories of scientists, inventors, and those who served in the military, as Aboriginal people have some of the highest rates of service. They are also filled with stories about sports and sports history. Indigenous peoples have a rich history of participation in basketball, boxing and, of course, stickball.
“It’s an old game,” Halfmoon said. “It’s been around on the North American continent for centuries and it’s still played today. Depending on which tribe is playing, the rules are different. It’s a national sport. We wanted a space to showcase some of our sports heroes, because all these people are obviously from Oklahoma.”
Ahtone says the United States has a colonial and racist history when it comes to collecting sacred objects that once belonged to Indigenous peoples, including human remains that are still in boxes and stored in some of the most notorious institutions. the United States. The Americans Museum would never do that and even made a deal with the Smithsonian to bring back to the state artifacts taken from Oklahoma tribes to link them to their ancestors.
“Here we are now as Indigenous people having the opportunity to use this collection and think, ‘What’s the best thing we could do?’ said Ahtone. “What is the best thing we can do for our communities through items that have been taken, and maybe legally, but maybe not with the same ethics or care with which we would have provided those items if they had been left in our community?”
Museum staff say they feel personally responsible for those who haven’t lived long enough to see the museum open, such as aunts, grandmothers and uncles.
Indigenous people make decisions with the next seven generations in mind, and the museum staff and the stories it contains reflect those who have come before and whose lives will be touched by what they will see and hear in the gallery for coming years.