Community , Culture

First Americans Museum opens with much celebration and fanfare

The front entrance of the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City, which opened on Sept. 18, 2021. CODY HAMMER/Osage News

OKLAHOMA CITY – The long-awaited First Americans Museum opened its doors to the public with a two-day grand opening celebration Sept. 18-19 to begin showcasing Oklahoma’s 39 tribal nations.

The Saturday morning milestone for the 175,000 square-foot institution commenced with a procession of people representing each of the 39 nations who entered the grounds at the institution located southeast of downtown Oklahoma City and along the Oklahoma River. Museum officials then hosted several of its celebratory events and guest speakers under an outdoor special event tent during the festivities.

Oklahoma City Mayor and Osage tribal member David Holt joined other museum officials and tribal dignitaries delivering congratulatory comments and well wishes that morning as part of the celebration.

“The First Americans Museum is awe-inspiring, impactful, heartwarming, authentic, accessible and inspirational and it is ours,” said Holt who wore a handmade black shirt with black and red ribbons for the occasion. “One of my mantras in public service is persistence and patience. This project may be the gold standard for that, but it once again demonstrates if you stick with it and you’re willing to plant trees so that our grandchildren will have shade, you can accomplish amazing things and this is an amazing thing.

“There’s maybe only one institution that may possibly rival this in telling the stories of First Americans, Native and Indigenous peoples of North America and that is the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall. But with all due respect to our Nation’s Capital, Washington, D.C. is not Oklahoma. One does not go to California to learn about the Roman Empire, one does not go to China to learn about the American Revolution. Oklahoma has authenticity, it has credibility, Oklahoma is the home of 39 tribal nations and as such, it is the pilgrimage you must make if you want to learn about First Americans, Native and Indigenous history and culture. And now finally we can offer you a world-class destination to have that experience adjacent to three interstates and 15 minutes from an airport with 27 nonstop connections,” Holt said with some attendees laughing at the modern-day travel references.

Holt added he is honored “to help open this museum today and I do so as Oklahoma City’s first Native American Mayor” with applause from attendees. Holt then said: “John Joseph Mathews was a member of my tribe, the Osage, he was a great historian and writer and he wrote the following in the history of our people who he refers to as The Children of the Middle Waters: ‘The Children of the Middle Waters had long begun to reason long before they came to build fantasies upon the foundations of their biological instincts and upon their mysterious urges. They had begun long before to fumble toward the Light, which their mental development would demand that they recognize. They felt more now than the urges of food-getting and mating; there was the third urge that came with thought. This was Wah’Kon, the Mystery Force. And in their urgency to come to some understanding of this life force, they knew great fear and confusion and they could only build their own framework into which they would try to fit this Wah’Kon and therefore bring it within the boundaries of their conception. They had been busy for perhaps centuries building a ritualistic cage for this Wah’Kon, the Mystery Force, that they might have it under control, materialize it out of the world of abstractions, so that they might know relief or protection from their own fears & uncertainties.’”

Holt said Mathews “was not necessarily writing about museums here, but he kind of is – And by the way, he played a role in the creation of our own tribal museum. Museums are places where we build a framework so that we might take the world of abstractions and make sense of it, bring it under control. The events experienced by Native and Indigenous peoples over the last 500 years are great mysteries, and those of us now left to sort it all out can be left with fear, confusion, uncertainty. FAM exists to help us all work through those questions. It is a place that brings knowledge, and a framework, and ultimately, perhaps some answers and some comfort … This place is indeed a gift to all the peoples of the world. Thank you again to all who wrapped it.”

The two-day celebration featured various live music and cultural performances, film showings and demonstrations throughout the two-story museum. The Osage News toured the museum amenities one week ahead of the grand opening with FAM officials.

James Pepper Henry (Kaw Nation/ Muscogee Creek) is the FAM director/ CEO and also touted the museum’s location. “In the summertime, 200,000 cars drive by here every single day, so we’re in a great location and I think we’re going to be the spot for people to come to when they’re looking for quality Native-made items (at the gift store),” he said.

The FAM Gift Store features artworks, clothing, books, jewelry, cultural items and other memorabilia for sale. Henry said the store is about 3,500 square feet and the museum’s mission for the store is “to highlight our incredible Native artists here in Oklahoma, so 80% of what you see in the store is either Native-made by Native artists or a Native (owned) company.”

Tom Farris, FAM store manager (Cherokee and Otoe-Missouria), said the store serves as another place Oklahoma artists can sell their works, especially while the COVID-19 pandemic caused cancelations of numerous annual art markets and special events where those artists usually sell their work. “We’re right at the corner of I-35 and I-40, so we’re uniquely situated to be that place,” he said.

Among the store merchandise on sale include clothing designed by Osage artist Dante Biss-Grayson Halleck and other works by Wendy Ponca, Alex Ponca Stock, and Dr. Jessica Harjo.

The museum theater has a 300-inch screen and has 164 seats, which retract into the wall to make way for live performances, special events, receptions and dances. “We signed a deal with Sundance and they have a Native film department and we’re going to screen some of their films here,” Henry said.

For food and drink amenities, the museum has a coffee bar, as well as a full-size industrial kitchen to cater its own special events and the chef staff has worked on a menu with foods “all based on traditional recipes of the tribes here in Oklahoma,” Henry said, adding “right now, there’s no beef, pork or chicken on the menu. It’s all bison, turkey, salmon, all Indigenous animals to the contiguous United States on the menu right now.”

Open for lunch daily and weekend brunch, FAM’s Thirty Nine Restaurant serves as an educational tool to bring awareness “to culinary distinctions between tribes, and the cultural history behind the recipes,” according to the FAM website. “Our philosophy is if you’re going to experience Native culture, food is part of that experience,” Henry said.

The FAM Exchange is another open space “for daytime performances like a little forum, so we can do storytelling, orientations for our visitors, we have cameras so if someone is doing a basket weaving demonstration or beadwork, we can zoom in on their hands and put the image on the (6K) screen,” Henry said.

Formerly referred to as the American Indian Cultural Center, the museum underwent a name rebranding in 2019. FAM’s opening comes after years of delay due to funding stalls at the Oklahoma state government level (where the project originated) before a joint venture was formed to complete the project when state funding ran out. The American Indian Cultural Center Foundation is operating the museum on behalf of the City of Oklahoma City, and AICCM Land Development, LLC will develop the surrounding property, according to the FAM website.

The museum features include a mound, which comprises 500,000 cubic yards of Earth and acknowledges mound-building civilizations dating back to around 500 A.D. “We want to honor our ancestors that were here and remind people there were cities here in Oklahoma before The Land Run and whites settling this area long before our tribes were moved here to Oklahoma,” Henry said.

Another visible building feature is the 110-foot tall Hall of the People, which is the large glass dome structure visible from the nearby highways. “The Wichitas and Caddos are some of the original Indigenous people here in Oklahoma before the other tribes arrived and we designed this based on a traditional grass lodge of theirs,” Henry said.

FAM’s OKLA HOMMA exhibition discusses the diverse histories of the 39 tribal nations, including origin stories, before going into contemporary times. “We’re not trying to tell a comprehensive story of every tribe in Oklahoma. We encourage people to go to the Osage museum, go to other tribal museums to learn more specifically about that particular tribe. What we are doing here is telling the common circumstances that brought the tribes to Oklahoma, how Oklahoma was created – You know this was Indian Territory and then in 1907, became a state, so we talk about where the tribes come from originally and what forced them here to Oklahoma,” Henry said.

Another FAM exhibition is WINIKO: Life of an Object, Selections from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian featuring objects from the 39 tribes returned to Oklahoma for the first time in 100 years, according to FAM. “Winiko” is the Caddo word for everything on Earth, in the universe, and beyond. “WINIKO draws from the holdings of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Selections include over 100 cultural materials collected from tribes in Oklahoma in the early 1900s. The NMAI objects left Oklahoma when non-Native institutions were rapidly acquiring materials from our so-called ‘vanishing’ tribal cultures,” according to FAM, which noted its all-Native curatorial team worked on bringing the objects back to Oklahoma on a 10-year loan from the Smithsonian.

First Americans Museum admission is $15 per person; Tribal members, seniors (age 62 and older), military service members and students (age 13 and older) will be charged $10 per person; Youth (ages 4-12) are $5 and children ages 3 and younger are free.

The museum is closed Tuesdays each week and will be open Mondays, Wednesdays-Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

Follow “First Americans Museum” on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The museum’s address is 659 First Americans Blvd. and can be reached by emailing info@FAMok.org or calling (405) 594-2100.