“I’m so excited because this is a joyous celebration. It’s ours.” — Lisa Johnson Billy, Master of Ceremonies
Gary Fife/Radio Communications
OKLAHOMA CITY — It’s been over a quarter century in the making. It’s had its ups and downs in the process. State legislators and some others had even called for the project’s termination.
But, on September 18, 2021, the dream finally came to fruition; The First Americans Museum opened its doors and welcomed a crowd. It was formerly named “The American Indian Cultural Center and Museum,” but staff and directors decided to shorten it to the “First Americans Museum,” to make it more visitor friendly.
Ceremonies began with prayer and participants passing under a stainless steel arch that welcomes visitors. Representatives of the state’s 39 tribes, in traditional dress, proceeded through a great open hall to the assembly area. Singers from the Black Leggings Society drum group sang a song especially composed for the occasion. Native musicians and artists also livened the day with a full entertainment schedule.
Executive Director James Pepper Henry (Kaw-Mvskoke), emphasized that the museum is a chance for sharing.
“We are thrilled to share with the public, a premier venue dedicated to the history, art and cultural life ways of First Americans in Oklahoma.” Pepper said in his remarks that the relationships between Natives and museum had not always been positive.”
“Historically, museums have not been friendly or welcoming places for First Americans,” he continued. “Many museums were, and still are, extensions of colonization, serving as repositories for the spoils of war and conquest by European nations over Indigenous peoples throughout the world. For many Native peoples, museums are reminders of what has been taken, and what has been lost.”
For Deputy Director Shoshanna Wassermann (Thlopthlocco Mvskoke), it was the completion of years of hard work and repair of the land.
“We had to cap oil wells….it took a full year to do the site remediation.” Wassermann said.
Wasserman was credited with assembling the bulk of the museum’s collection and, as Henry said, being a driving force for the whole project.
The Chickasaw Tribe and the municipality of Oklahoma City played major roles in assisting the project in becoming a reality.
Many of the attendees felt the FAM would serve as a repository of past Oklahoma Native history, but also to remind visitors that Native people and sovereignty is still very much a part of this state’s make-up and history today.
The FAM is located at the intersection of several federal interstate highways and is highly visible to passing traffic. It occupies a section of land that was formerly the location of several oil wells. Henry noted that the project actually healed and repaired the site. The 40-acre physical layout has the eastern gate faces the rising sun and contains an alignment with the Four Directions.
Probably its most noticeable feature is the giant glass and steel half-dome covering the Hall of the People. Inside are various galleries showcasing the art and cultures of the 39 tribes, exhibitions of people and places, both positive and negative. To be more visitor friendly, a restaurant, video screens, stages, a gift shop and conveniences are readily available.
Exhibits included historical presentations about Native history in this state, notable Native personalities, artwork, as well as a carefully curated arrangement of negative images of Native peoples. Interactive presentations highlighted the hallways.
Staff has strongly maintained there will be no human remains in their collections.
The museum will hold a special celebration on Oct. 11 to honor Indigenous Peoples Day.
Lisa Johnson Billy, a former Oklahoma legislator, governor’s Native American assistant and Chickasaw tribal executive served as the Master of Ceremonies. She worked on the early legislative efforts to initiate the project in the Oklahoma State Legislature. For Billy, the FAM opening was a great emotional experience.
“My heart is bursting. I’m so excited because this is a joyous celebration. It’s ours,” Billy said.
Admission tickets are for sale. The museum will be open most days except for Tuesday. Hours will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.