Columns

Friends and Family at First Americans Museum opening

I usually hold my breath when I go into the visitor center at historic sites. I remember how York, the only Black member of the Lewis & Clark expedition, was represented at Devil’s Tower Visitors Center. The events at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site at Waiilatpu near Walla Walla in far eastern Washington state were luridly dramatized without context when I first visited. I remember Sitka’s Sheldon Jackson Museum and the thousands of items the early missionary collected from Alaska Natives.

I intended to attend the First Americans Museum opening in Oklahoma City but Delta variant changed my plans. The photos and videos that filled social media and Oklahoma news spoke of an incredible achievement.

The museum celebrates the 39 tribes of Oklahoma. The thoughtful planning by a Native curatorial staff and administration begins with a cosmological orientation of the buildings that reminds me of Woodhenge at Cahokia and the layout of the pyramids there. The buildings are round, partial circles that intersect, funneling light at the equinoxes.

Building design includes a great hall under a 110-foot glass dome that echoes the grass lodges of the Caddo and Wichita tribes who were indigenous to the area. The glass panels make a futuristic lodge, bringing together our origins, traditional lifeways and present lives.

Looking at the mounds that surround the First Americans Museum, I’m struck by the welcoming arch by Cherokee artists, Bill and Demos Glass. An open hand is suspended from a silver metal arch. It’s beautiful, but there’s irony in the echo of the big Gateway Arch built along the Mississippi River at St. Louis meant to celebrate millions of explorers and pioneers who settled the West.

The museum opening Sept. 18th and 19th featured performances by Karen Kitchen’s Prairie Blossoms, singing “Women’s Song of Rejoicing.” The Prairie Blossoms were followed by Lill Mike & Funny Bone, regulars on Reservation Dogs. There were youth poets and fashion shows, including Jessica Harjo’s Weomepe designs. Her collection included ribbon skirts in muted blues and an earthy tan, as well as wide-leg pants. My favorite was the baby ribbon dress. Visitors wore Dante Biss-Grayson’s designs which floated through videos on social media. Moira Redcorn designed the leather dress her mother Caddo and Potawatomi artist Jeri Redcorn wore. 

One of the most striking designs at the museum was a large-scale pot with a swirling Southeastern wave motif on its lustrous dark curves that Jeri Redcorn designed. By large scale, I mean workers used ladders to complete it. In fact, the pot forms the Origin’s Theatre, where visitors watch animated short films that tell genesis stories of the Caddo, Pawnee, Yuchi and Otoe-Missouria.

The fashion shows generated a lot of excitement for beautiful Native designed clothes and jewelry. Jeri Redcorn wore a silk shrug patterned after Ayoh Wahdut Kukuh, her great pot. The shrug and a large handbag with the same design will be available in the First Americans Museum gift store. 

The new museum, in its opening and its collections, allows Natives to speak for ourselves in the collaborative joy that comes when we get together to celebrate. The many Osage and Native designers working today reflect that same joy and affirmation.

I can’t wait to see the museum in person. The Chickasaw Nation is planning to build a five-star hotel next to the museum, which by itself should draw Osages.