The team behind
the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City incorporated the traditions
and spiritual beliefs of 39 tribal nations into its design
The First Americans Museum
opened in Oklahoma City this month. James Pepper Henry
At 175,000 square feet, the new First
Americans Museum (FAM) in Oklahoma City is the largest single-building
tribal cultural center in the country, honoring Oklahoma's
39 tribal nations and housing the National Native American Hall
of Fame. The museum opened this month after three decades of planning,
and a design process that strove for an architectural masterpiece
that would be meaningful to the tribes represented within it.
The FAM's tribute to the state's tribal nations begins
before you even walk through its doors. In the shape of two partial
circles that intersect, the museum grounds function as a huge cosmological
clock, tracking the seasons by showing the movement of the sun across
the circles and highlighting the equinoxes. The museum buildings
make up one circle, and an enormous earthen mound made from 500,000
cubic yards of dirt forms the other.
Circle and spiral shapes hold symbolic meaning in First Americans'
spirituality, and it was of the utmost importance to include them
in the design, explains Anthony Blatt, principal with Hornbeek
Blatt Architects, which worked on the museum with design architect
Johnson Fain. "There is
no end because time is circular in Native cultures. The sun travels
around the Earth," says Blatt. John Pepper Henry, a member
of the Kaw Nation and the director and CEO of the FAM, adds, "Right
angles are not an aesthetic for many of the tribes here in Oklahoma.
In our beliefs, if you have a right angle, spirits get trapped in
there and it causes an imbalance. So, all of our dwellings are round."
In the shape of two partial
circles that intersect, the museum grounds function as a huge
cosmological clock. Circle House Media
Visitors can walk to the top of the earthen mound to get a sprawling
view of Oklahoma City, and on the equinoxes, they can have an extra
special experience. On the winter solstice, the sun shines directly
through a tunnel cut into the mound, flooding the interior field
(the museum's Festival Plaza) with light. On the summer solstice,
the sun sits perfectly at the apex of the mound.
Getting to the point where all the stakeholders in the museum,
funded by the state of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City and the Chickasaw
Nation, agreed on a design was a strenuous process, starting back
in the late 1990s.
"The challenge for the architects was to find symbolism and
design that wasn't too specific to one tribe or the other,
but to find those common elements to be able to create a design
familiar to any tribe that comes here," says Pepper Henry.
"But it's not too specific where one tribe feels like
we're playing favorites to one over another."
To accomplish that, the architects, the design team, landscape
architects, Native consultants, a theatrical consultant, and others
worked closely with tribal members from each nation to pick the
site for the museum and to listen and learn about their different
traditions in order to incorporate them into the space.
The new museum honors
Oklahoma's 39 tribal nations. First Americans Museum
"What started happening was they started hearing some commonalities,"
says Shoshana Wasserman, from Thlopthlocco Tribal Town and the deputy
director at the FAM. "There is this philosophical approach
to connectivity, to the natural world, life-sustaining elements
like fire, wind, water, Earth. So, these started emerging. That
connectivity to Mother Earth became so powerful, and so that's
the direction it went."
The entire museum is aligned with the cardinal directions, with
the entrance at the east to represent how Indigenous homes always
have east-facing entrances to greet the morning sun. A massive arch
sculpture by father and son Cherokee art team Bill
and Demos Glass borders the entrance, and on the equinoxes,
the sun interacts with this arch, perfectly framing it in light.
Flanking the FAM's front door are two walls of Mesquabuck stone,
named after Potawatomi Indian Chief Mes'kwah-buk, a chief and
distinguished warrior from what's now Indiana, who was named
after the colors at sunrise and sunset. The name roughly translates
to "amber glow," and when the morning sun shines through
the arch, it sets the stone aglow.
Flanking the FAM's
front door are two walls of Mesquabuck stone. First Americans
The two circles of the museum also pay tribute to ancient and modern
"[The mound is] an homage or nod to our ancestors and the
great civilizations that were here before us," Pepper Henry
says. "A lot of people don't think of this part of the
country as being occupied by humans for thousands of years, but
one of the great civilizations in North America was right here in
Oklahoma, at the Spiro
Mounds. The other circle [the museum footprint] is our modern
The two circles intersect at a space called the Hall of People,
a 110-foot-tall glass dome designed after the grass lodges used
by the Native Wichita and Caddo communities before other tribes
arrived in the area. Ten columns in the Hall of People represent
the ten miles a day Indigenous people were forced to walk during
relocation to Oklahoma. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed
Removal Actlegislation that promoted white settlement
and forced about 125,000 Indigenous people living in Tennessee,
Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama and Florida to move to Oklahoma.
Walking on a path we now know as the Trail
of Tears, thousands died along the way.
The FAM has three main
exhibit galleries. First Americans Museum
Moving inside, the FAM's exhibit design reflects other important
aspects of First Americans' history and spirituality. In the
South Gallery, for example, visitors follow parallel timelines,
one on each side of the gallery. The side representing the European
timeline of Native history is straight and linear. The side representing
the Indigenous interpretation of the timeline is circular.
"One you march down, the other one you circle through and
circle through and come out, and it never stops," Blatt says,
explaining that European history is perceived as very linear, while
Indigenous concept of time is more circular and rounds onto itself.
Overall, the FAM has three main exhibit galleries, two theaters
and two restaurants focusing on Native food. The collection explores
the authentic history of First Americans, their contributions to
society and the cultural diversity among the 39 tribes in Oklahoma.
Some of the highlights of the museum include artwork throughout
the exhibits, like a massive piece of traditional pottery designed
by Caddo and Potawatomi artist Jeri
Redcorn and made into a theater; an explanation of the symbolism
of stickball (the precursor to modern lacrosse) and game artifacts;
and first-person stories told inside the "OKLA
HOMMA" exhibit. The
National Native American Hall of Fame will move to the museum
site in the future from its current location in Montana.
The museum highlights
First Americans' contributions to society and the cultral
diversity among Oklahoma's tribal nations. First Americans
The FAM has a partnership
with Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.
The two institutions signed an agreement in 2007 for the Smithsonian
to loan the FAM 135 items, from clothing and textiles to tools and
toys, for ten years. The artifacts, on display in an 8,000-square-foot
gallery called "WINIKO:
Life of an Object," were all collected in Oklahoma and
have connections to each of the 39 tribes that lived there in the
"One of the priorities of our loans program is to place objects
under our stewardship closer to their communities of origin,"
says Rachel Shabica, supervisory registrar at the National Museum
of the American Indian. "This loan provided us with the opportunity
to collaborate with a Native-run institution to highlight Native
collections in their place of origin. The partnership between NMAI
and FAM will enhance the general awareness and understanding of
the history of the 39 tribes and their relationship to Oklahoma
The collection explores
the authentic history of First Americans. First Americans
"WINIKO" is divided into three separate sections. The
first covers cultural materials, such as regalia made with lynx
fur for a Comanche baby and daily-use woven bags, and how they were
created. The second section highlights the disconnect and cultural
loss that happens to artifacts when they're removed from their
tribe of origin. For example, one display shows each item on a flipping
panel. One side shows how the museum world looks at the object,
in terms of basic (and often incorrect) information and how much
the item is valued at monetarily. But when visitors flip the panel,
they learn about how the item was used and the personal value it
holds in Native cultures. The third part of "WINIKO" is
about the "cultural continuum," as Wasserman calls it.
"This cultural continuum is basically stating in the broadest
sense that these cultural materials that were collected at the turn
of the century are as important and as relevant today as they always
have been," she says. "In fact, we continue to make these
kinds of items in a contemporary context, and we continue to use
One section of the cultural continuum gallery focuses on five artifacts,
including a hat worn by a young Modoc girl on the Trail of Tears,
that the FAM and Smithsonian reunited with the original owners'
descendants. As curators were putting together the items for the
gallery, they began to recognize names from the local Indigenous
communities. After digging deeper, they learned the items belonged
to these community members' descendants.
"We began to talk to these communities and understand the
stories associated with [the items]," Wasserman says. "[They]
all had a beautiful homecoming with either the descendants or the
tribe of origin, and these were filmed and documented. The Smithsonian
allowed the community members, in a private space, to lay their
hands, their DNA on the cultural materials of their ancestors who
created it and whose DNA was on it. It was so powerful and so spiritual
and so emotional."
The physical objects are on display, and videos of the reunions
play on a screen around the corner from them.
In addition to its galleries,
the museum has two theaters and two restaurants focusing on
Native food. First Americans Museum
One poignant moment helped Wasserman, at least, conclude that the
detailed design process was a success. When a tribal elder was at
FAM for a museum preview, she told one of the employees that the
museum felt like home.
"When I heard that commentit was just really, really
powerful," says Wasserman. "From the moment you arrive,
you're making this ceremonial east-west entrance. The average
person coming in is not paying attention to that, but Native people,
as they're coming in, there's a knowingness. There's
a connectivity that is immediate, it's visceral."
Most of all, though, Wasserman hopes the museum can help younger
Indigenous communities feel like they have a place that is a reflection
of them and their culture.
"When my niece and nephew go sit in a classroom, they're
not present in America's history," she says. "They're
not present in Oklahoma's history, and that's demeaning.
It's degrading, and it's minimalizing, and it means 'I
mean nothing,' and that has had spiritual impacts on our youth.
The trauma that perpetuates and lives on in our communities, it's
a very real thing. So, I hope this can be just a really beautiful
place of healing."
Jennifer Billock is an award-winning writer, bestselling author,
and editor. She is currently dreaming of an around-the-world trip
with her Boston terrier. Check out her website at jenniferbillock.com.