The First Americans Museum opened to the public on Saturday, Sept. 18. The celebrations included music, craft and dance demonstrations and welcomed guests, including Oklahoma Christian University Honors students.
First Americans Museum Director and CEO, James Pepper Henry, said in a press release he is thrilled to share the museum with the public.
“We are thrilled to share with the public a premier venue dedicated to the history, art and cultural lifeways of First Americans in Oklahoma,” Henry said. “Those who attend the Grand Opening will be among the first to experience a national treasure that will be enjoyed for decades to come.”
According to the First Americans Museum’s website, the center hopes visitors “will experience the collective histories of 39 distinctive First American Nations in Oklahoma today.”
Spencer Bannister, the Honors Advisory Council president, said the experience sounded like a good opportunity for an enrichment event for Honors students. Students in the Honors Program are required to earn Honors enrichment credits throughout the semester at events like concerts, live performances and museums.
Bannister and 20 other students left at 6 p.m. on opening day for what Bannister said was an eye-opening experience.
“It was really cool to see this museum that was put together and was led by leaders from the 39 tribal nations represented in Oklahoma and to see the history and culture told from their perspective, not the way it ends up getting portrayed in media or in our history books, but to see it portrayed from their perspective and the way it’s passed down from their lineage,” Bannister said.
Ginny Underwood, a Comanche/Kiowa tribe member and the museum’s marketing and communications manager, said Native Americans want to share their heritage with others.
“We want to be bridge builders,” Underwood said. “We want to be able to share our culture and our traditions and help people understand.”
“Being in Oklahoma, with our families and Native communities, allows my children access to great role models, connection to things beyond themselves and an understanding of who they are as tribal people,” Underwood said.
According to KFOR News, construction on the museum location at 659 First Americans Blvd. in Oklahoma City originally started in 2006. Progress continued into 2012 until the state hit their budget for the project. Disagreements followed until the project shut down. In 2016, the state came to an agreement with the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City to complete the project.
Emily Venkatesan, the Honors Advisory Council junior representative, said she learned about the structure of politics within First American cultures.
“The foundational structure of the First American civilizations prioritized cooperation and many cultures also invoked matriarchal political structures when making decisions about war and the actions of the nation,” Venkatesan said. “Additionally, I learned that the modern constitution for the United States borrowed structure from the Iroquois Confederacy.”
Venkatesan said she was interested in the Native American Graves Repatriation Act passed in 1990.
“This act calls for the return of culturally significant artifacts and human remains to be returned to the community it belongs to,” Venkatesan said. “I have an interest in the legal field of art restitution and so this process fascinated me.”
Bannister said he hoped students learned the importance of learning about other cultures.
“One of the big takeaways that I hope we take is that we’re not the best and the brightest, and we’re not at the center of everything,” Bannister said. “It’s important to study other cultures because you can see different perspectives and enhance your sense of interconnectedness because everyone has something they can bring to the table.”
In an interview with KFOR News, Lily Painter of the Winnebago and Kiowa Tribes said the new museum lets viewers experience current native culture.
“I’m so happy because I feel like museums have historically always kinda put Natives in a position where we are viewed as people of the past, artifacts that aren’t here anymore. And this museum offers them a way to see our heritage today,” Painter said.