‘We Gave Them a Lot of Authority to Guide Us’: How the Native Tribes of Oklahoma Are Helping Shape the New First Americans Museum

After languishing for 15 years, the Oklahoma City museum is opening to the public at last.

The First Americans Museum in Oklahoma. Courtesy of the First Americans Museum.

Bringing to life the long-awaited First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City, which opens to the public on September 18, couldn’t have felt more personal for chief curator heather ahtone. 

“I have never worked on anything that felt like such an immense responsibility on behalf of the community,” said ahtone, who is a member of the Chickasaw nation and was born in Oklahoma. 

“These were incredibly difficult decisions to make,” she said. “But as we’ve been building this, as we’ve been working on it and carrying this incredibly personal burdensome weight to make these plans, we’ve also envisioned that what we’re doing is hopefully building a museum for the next generation.” 

The First Americas Museum has been a long time in the making. Plans initially gained traction in 1994, when Oklahoma State Senator Enoch Kelly Haney, an artist and member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, co-authored a bill to create a state agency to develop the museum. It passed, but did not allocate adequate funds, and so the project languished for years. 

After further funding promises from state and federal bodies failed to materialize throughout the 2000s, Oklahoma City finally partnered with a land management subsidiary of the Chickasaw Nation in 2017. The company, AICCM Land Management, agreed to fund the museum in exchange for the right to purchase and develop the 300 acres of land surrounding it.

Courtesy of the First Americans Museum.

Today, the 175,000-square-foot museum sits on what was originally Native land that belonged to the Muskogee Creek and Seminole Nations. It was later turned into a motocross track, causing workers to have to remove 7,000 tires from the site when they began to convert it. A steel hand inside a giant arch, which was created by father-and-son Cherokee artists Demos Glass and Bill Glass Jr., marks the entranceway. Behind it stands a glittering glass dome on one side of a cosmological clock, with a large earthen mound on the other side. 

The entrance to the museum faces east, in recognition of the significance of the cardinal directions. The design was made in consultation with tribal councils, a key part of the First Americans Museum’s vision. 

“Through the years, we have done rounds and rounds of consultation with the tribes,” deputy director Shoshana Wasserman told Artnet News during a preview at the museum. “The level of ambassadorship that had to happen for this project has been phenomenal.” 

First Americans’ practice of holding formal consultations with all of Oklahoma’s tribes is a rarity in the museum world. “We tried to do these years of tribal consultation to make sure that we were on the right path—that we were authentic,” Wasserman said.

The tribes always have a right to say no to an object being shown in the museum, and the opportunity to suggest an alternative. 

Design inspiration for the museum. Courtesy of the First Americans Museum.

Alongside each of the works in the museum’s inaugural exhibition, “Winiko: Life of an Object,” which is made up primarily of objects on a 10-year loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, curators included a photo of the descendants of whoever made the object (if one was available). 

For example, next to an incredible hide painting of horses and their riders, made by Kiowa artist Silver Horn around 1900, there’s a photograph of Donald Tofpi, Silver Horn’s great grandson. “This is something that I think is actually one of the most beautiful and, in a matter of speaking, subtle, nuanced components of the gallery,” ahtone said.

“We worked with the tribes, really giving them a lot of authority to guide us, as long as it could still fit within the sort of framework of the arc of what we were building in there,” ahtone said. 

Downstairs, in the south wing, is the “Okla Homma” exhibition, sharing the stories of all 39 tribes in Oklahoma. 

Beginning with an immersive video installation that uses animation to tell four different Native origin stories, the exhibition is a sweeping endeavor taking up nearly 18,000 feet of gallery space. It combines history, contemporary events, culture, and visual art, with many interactive elements, including games visitors can play and a van that stages pow wow “tours.”

Courtesy of the First Americans Museum.

One section of the show, titled “Mis-Representation,” displays stereotypical Native American imagery in a glass case. The opposite wall showcases satirical works that can be seen as a response to those images by Native artists including Zachary Presley and Julie Buffalohead.

Ever present throughout the galleries are video and audio components that feature Native voices and faces. Ultimately, the exhibition celebrates the Native communities as cultures within their tribes, but also as Americans. 

“It celebrates the uniqueness of who we are both as cultural people within our various tribes, but also as Americans,” ahtone said. “And to make sure that we position this whole story as an extension of the American story.” 

The First Americans Museum opens September 18, 2021. 659 First Americans Blvd., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, famok.org

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