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Celebrating Our Survival: First Americans Museum Tells The Story Of Indigenous 'Okla Homma'

First Americans Museum
An overhead view of the new First Americans Museum along the Oklahoma River in Oklahoma City

After nearly three decades of waiting, the state’s Indigenous communities will finally get the chance to showcase their stories and history in a brand new museum located along the Oklahoma River in Oklahoma City.

First Americans Museum is a different kind of museum, says curatorial specialist Leslie Halfmoon.

"Generally, people have a collection of objects, and then they go from there to tell the stories," she explains. "We did not have a collection, any objects, but we were like, 'we have a lot of stories.'"

And tell the collective story of Oklahoma's 39 Tribes is exactly what she and the other staff at the First Americans Museum did — from their cosmological origins to the present day.

Halfmoon says people are going to enter this museum with what they already know about Indigenous people. Their challenge was to make people learn more and see more.

"Allow us to tell you who we are, introduce ourselves from our own perspectives," says Halfmoon.

Allison Herrera
The outside of the First Americans Museum

The 175,000 square foot space is stitched together with stories, is media rich and includes interactive exhibits like how to play a handgame and a Tron-inspired Chunkey game.

There’s also a powwow van created by Kiowa artist Stephen Paul Judd that invites you to take a trip to tribal celebrations across Oklahoma.

The idea for the museum came about in 1994 when the Oklahoma legislature created the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority. Previous to that, an intertribal task force was created to endorse the creation of a cultural center.

The museum was designed to reflect the seasons and features a 21st century mound that is "a tribute to the many tribes in Oklahoma who descend from Moundbuilder cultures."

Allison Herrera
A wall inside the First Americans Museum resembles Caddo pottery, designed by Caddo and Potawatomi artist Jerri Redcorn.

Visitors start off in the main exhibit hall with a theater that resembles Caddo pottery designed by Caddo and Potawatomi artist Jerri Redcorn. It's a nod to the tribal nation that has always called Oklahoma home. Inside, they hear origin stories from the Otoe-Missouria, Pawnee, Euchee and Caddo.

"I hope that we begin to normalize this idea that Oklahoma didn't start in 1542 with Coronado," says Halfmoon.

The museum also tells the story of removal — from the Trail of Tears to the boarding school era and the Indian Removal Act, in which 1.5 billion acres was seized from Indigenous people. These stories aren't told through didactics, but from the perspective of the tribal members whose family members and ancestors lived through dark times for Indigenous people.

Lead curator Heather Ahtone says many of the stories that will be told for the first time in the museum couldn’t come to light at a timelier moment.

"This museum is telling the story of survival," said Ahtone. "Well, how can we not all be celebrating the fact that we're surviving a pandemic?"

One of the exhibits is a pair of baby shoes that belonged to an Oklahoma child who was sent to Haskell Boarding School. Oklahoma had nearly 83 boarding schools — the last of which was Chilocco in far northern Oklahoma, which closed in the 1980s.

"The recovery of these infant ancestors who suffered in the hands of colonialism," she said, getting choked up. "It became a poignant moment when we found this photograph of these two and three-year-old Haskell babies there, actually holding a sign that says 'Haskell Babies.'"

Allison Herrera
Artwork stands in the First American Museum's courtyard. The artwork with is called Glass Studio, Demos Glass (Cherokee Nation), Bill Glass, Jr. (Cherokee Nation), assisted by Dakota Coatney & DJ Bolin (Cherokee Nation).

Ahtone believes in synergy.
"If you're doing what you're supposed to be doing, things are going to come together in a way that you can't make it happen," she said.

The second floor is dedicated to objects — ones that were repatriated to Oklahoma from the Smithsonian. Ahtone and her collaborators then did the work to connect those objects to the people and families who owned them. The gallery is called Winiko: The Life of an Object.

Ultimately, the museum is dedicated to the contributions that Indigenous people in Oklahoma have made to society — astronauts, veterans, educators, Indian activists.

The museum is about the people, and it's about the role Indigenous people played in making the state what it is today. Even the word “Oklahoma” comes from the Choctaw words, “Okla Homma.”

"Reclaiming the North American continent for Indigenous people from the beginning was ever present in our minds," says Halfmoon.

First Americans Museum will have its grand opening on September 18th and 19th and will feature Native performers and artists — all from Okla Homma.

You can find a link to the complete schedule for this weekend’s grand opening events here.

Editor's Note: A video Allison Herrera made of activists Casey Camp Horinek, Sarah Adams Cornell and Joshua Hinson is featured in First Americans Museum.

This report was produced by the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange, a collaboration of public media organizations. Help support collaborative journalism by donating at the link at the top of this webpage.

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
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