At the junction of three major interstates in Oklahoma City sits the skeletal ribs of what is to be the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum. It has been a dormant site for years due to a lack of funding and an inability to reach a consensus between tribes and the state. That squabble has finally, after 23 years, been resolved and the museum will now see construction crews returning to finish it.
The American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, which will introduce visitors to the 39 tribes of the Oklahoma starting in 2021, is taking shape at what new CEO James Pepper Henry calls “the crossroads, the intersection of America.” Located at the confluence of Interstate 35, 40 and 44, Pepper Henry says the location makes it easy for people to get off the highway and experience the story of Oklahoma’s 39 tribal communities.
Pepper Henry says the cultural center was conceived in 1994, when the Oklahoma Legislature created the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority, charged with building the center as a tourism enterprise.
A change in legislative leadership stopped the state funding and construction on the 162,000-square-foot center in 2012.
“Some conservative members felt this was some sort of reparations to the tribe and that tribes should pay for it. I’m happy to say that consensus has been reached,” said Pepper Henry. “The state agreed to finish its obligation toward the project, and private citizens and tribes have stepped up to the plate with matching funds.”
All tribes, including the Chickasaw Nation have contributed to the effort and to date, $40 million has been contributed to match the state’s outlay. After the cultural center opens in 2021, Oklahoma City will take ownership, with the American Indian Cultural Foundation, a private nonprofit, managing the center. “It’s a public-private partnership,” says Pepper Henry, who’s the foundation’s first hire.
The American Indian Cultural Center & Museum will include a 125,000 square foot museum on a 300-acre site located on river trust property donated by the City of Oklahoma City.
Some of the attractions will include a massive Central Promontory Mound, which is 1.7 billion pounds of red earth piled 90 feet high and reflects the Spiral Mound and Cahokia Mound culture along the Mississippi Valley. “We wanted to pay homage to the great civilizations of this part of the country by creating this mound structure. Visitors will be able to walk up the mound, which represents life’s journey, to the crest.” said Pepper Henry.
Several galleries will tell the story of both the indigenous peoples of Oklahoma and those who journeyed there through removal policies. The 17,000-square-foot signature gallery will provide an historical overview of Oklahoma from pre-contact to the Diaspora, relocation, and tribes today.
“Most tribes in Oklahoma came here from somewhere else, through treaty or coercion. We want to talk about the original territories of those tribes and the importance of place to the tribes before removal, and how Oklahoma lands became sacred to these tribes after removal.”
The gallery will also make use of technology to manage the massive volume of information for 39 distinct tribes. Special smart cards can be encoded with a visitor’s preference. For example, if she is interested in the Cherokee story, the smart card will direct her to Cherokee materials. The next visitor may wish to view Osage history, and his smart card will allow him to home in on one of the state’s indigenous peoples.
In addition to permanent and changing exhibitions, the center will have a robust gift shop modeled after the Heard Museum’s shop, a café featuring indigenous foods; meeting spaces, and spaces for private ceremonies and the cultural park.
No archaeological items will be accepted. “We’re not interested in collecting precontact items, particularly items that come from graves,” says Pepper Henry.
The cultural center is meant to serve as the appetizer for visitors hungry for details about tribes. The hope is that, once they have sampled the rich cultures, they will journey to tribal museums, staying longer and spending tourism dollars in state, Pepper Henry says.
“I want this to be the pinnacle of my career as a museum professional,” says Pepper Henry, an enrolled member of the Kaw Nation and citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation, whose career in the museum field spans more than 30 years. “It has so much personal meaning for me. I want my children and grandchildren to be have this as a resource. I want this to be a legacy.”
However, Pepper Henry also feels keenly the need to get the job done—and soon. “I feel a sense of urgency; some of the people who have been involved with this project over the past two decades are elders,” he says. “’Jim, I’m going to stay alive as long as I can so I can see this cultural center open,’” they tell me.
“I told them, I’m going to get this cultural center open for you.”