The First Americans Museum (FAM) will open to the public this weekend in Oklahoma City and will tell the collective stories of survival from the perspective of 39 distinct Tribal Nations.
The museum showcases cutting edge exhibitions in First American history, culture and art as well as live public and educational programmes, and a museum shop and restaurant featuring objects and food created by First American artists and chefs.
It has a mission to change the perception of First Americans: “To serve as a dynamic centre promoting awareness and educating the broader public about the unique cultures, diversity, history, contributions, and resilience of the First American Nations in Oklahoma today.”
The museum is a public-private partnership between the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority – a state agency established in 1994 to develop the project – and the non-profit corporation, the American Indian Cultural Center Foundation, which was established in 1998 to facilitate fundraising activities for the project and which now manages the museum.
In 2017 they partnered with the State of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City and the Chickasaw Nation subsidiary to fund the museum.
Two buildings make up the First Americans Museum campus: the 175,000 square foot museum and a 4,000 square foot FAM Center which will serve as an educational resource
FAM sits on a 40-acre site along the Oklahoma River at the crossroads of America and there is a symbolic east-to-west arrival, which the museum says acknowledges many of the First Americans’ doorways in cultural communities that face east, greeting the new day
The museum explains that in 1907 Oklahoma became the 46th state to enter the union but its story began long before statehood.
Only a few Tribal Nations were indigenous to what is now the State of Oklahoma. All others were removed from homelands across the contiguous United States to Indian Territory.
An Origins Theater, for example, resembles a large piece of Caddo pottery designed by Caddo and Potawatomi artist Jerri Redcorn. It is a representation of the tribal nation that has inhabited the region since 800CE. Inside, visitors will hear origin stories from the Otoe-Missouria, Pawnee, Euchee and Caddo.
The museum also tells the story of removal – from the Indian Removal Act of 1830, in which 1.5 billion acres were seized from Indigenous people and the Trail of Tears, a series of forced displacements of approximately 60,000 Native Americans between 1830 and 1850.
These stories are told from the perspective of the tribal members whose family members and ancestors lived through dark times for Indigenous people.
A view of the Okla Homma exhibition depicting warriors
The inaugural exhibitions include Okla Homma (A reference to the states name, which is an amalgamation of two Choctaw words, “Okla” and “Homma,” meaning Red People) in the Tribal Nations Gallery.
This exhibition showcases the diverse stories of the 39 tribes in Oklahoma today, featuring works of art, interactive media and film. Okla Homma explores these stories from ancestral origins to the present day.
The 18,000 square foot Tribal Nations Gallery has been designed by Ralph Applebaum Associates and also examines contemporary issues, including representation, sports and games and warriors.
The museum has loaned items from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian for its Winiko: Life of an Object exhibition.
Winiko examines the things the tribes have created and how they reflect their values, possess spiritual significance and carry our ways into future generations.
“Visitors will leave with a reinvigorated respect for the resilience of Native people of Oklahoma and an appreciation for their important contributions to our communities today,” the museum said.
Complex relationship between native people and museums
“The exhibition also explores the complex relationship between native people and museums and critiques the manner in which non-native scholars have represented our objects and cultures.”
The exhibition will include newly commissioned works to complement the collective histories.
As well as representing the 39 tribes stories the museum will also offer visitors the chance to sample indigenous food at its Thirty Nine restaurant with a menu created by Emmy award winning Chef Loretta Barrett Oden (Citizen Potawatomi Nation).
An opening weekend of celebrations will include a tribal procession, speeches, dance performances and live music.
About the author – Adrian Murphy
Adrian is the Editor of MuseumNext and has 20 years’ experience as a journalist, half of which has been writing for the cultural sector.