One Place, Many Nations - the new First Americans Museum in OKC - MetroFamily Magazine
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One Place, Many Nations – the new First Americans Museum in OKC

Photos provided by First Americans Museum.

by Lindsay Cuomo

Reading Time: 6 minutes 

The much-anticipated First Americans Museum will welcome visitors for the first time this September to learn about the shared history of the 39 tribal nations in Oklahoma today. Utilizing art, architecture, first-person narratives and multi-media experiences, the 40-acre complex guides families through the cultural diversity, authentic history and contributions of First Americans.

Explore the galleries, watch Native films, taste traditional foods and Indigenous ingredients and engage in family-friendly programming that illuminates a uniquely Native perspective in this world-class museum.

A shared history

FAM’s mission is to honor the Indigenous people who inhabited Oklahoma before it was a state, before our nation was even established, as well as those who would later call Oklahoma home.

“Today, 39 distinct tribal nations reside in Oklahoma,” shared Ginny Underwood, marketing and communications manager at FAM. “We are as diverse culturally and linguistically as the nations on the European continent.”

Eight tribes have historical relationships with Oklahoma, from occupied villages to seasonal migration and hunting: Apache, Caddo, Tonkawa, Wichita, Comanche, Kiowa and Quapaw. Other tribal nations were removed and relocated such as the Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole, who were once assigned the land upon which the museum now resides.

“After nearly 200 years, our histories and cultural lifeways are now interwoven into this landscape,” explained Underwood.

FAM seeks to help visitors understand the individual and collective experiences by telling 39 sovereign stories in one place. Underwood said the galleries and attractions highlight a variety of first-hand experiences that relate to a single timeline.

“It is Native people telling their story,” said Underwood. “There was a lot of community dialog that contributed to what the museum would look like and be like. We hope to be able to look at history, which is sometimes ugly, and reinforce the importance of different perspectives and understanding of our shared history.”

The grounds

Right away, museum guests will notice many unique features including the buildings’ architecture and the large mound that pays tribute to the mound-builder civilizations who lived in Oklahoma dating back to around 500 A.D. Families can walk to the top of the mound, which is designed to be a metaphor for the life journey and the Indigenous connection to the sun, moon and stars, and take in the views of downtown Oklahoma City.

Underwood said the round trip walking tour to the peak takes about 45 minutes. The mound wraps around Festival Plaza, which will be the center of the grand opening celebration on Sept. 18 and 19 and will later host powwows, stick-ball games, concerts and cultural festivals.

Even the orientation and the composition of the structures have meaning. The Remembrance Gate aligns with the rising sun, the Hall of The People is inspired by a traditional Wichita Grasshouse and the 10 columns that support the Hall represent the estimated 10 miles a day traveled by Native people during the forced removal to Indian Territory.

The mound tunnel aligns with the winter solstice sunset.

“The whole architectural design is a cosmological clock, incorporating cardinal directions and solstice events,” shared Underwood.

The museum features three exhibits, two theaters, two restaurants and a large gift shop, in addition to the outdoor attractions. The only sections of the museum that require admission are the galleries and events in the FAMTheater.

“We want people to come back and spend time at FAM, eating at our restaurants [and] shopping,” shared Underwood.

The galleries

The museum galleries feature three long-term exhibitions, all designed to be family-friendly with activity sheets to help kids engage with Native stories and the objects on view.

“Parents will be pleased with the logistics of a gallery visit,” said Adrienne Lalli Hills, associate director of learning and community engagement. “Strollers and baby carriers are permitted in the galleries, although we ask parents to front-carry their children. All of our objects on view are installed behind glass, so grown-ups don’t need to fret about stray hands accidentally touching the art.”

In the Tribal Nations gallery, OKLA HOMMA focuses on the 39 Tribal Nations, immersing visitors in tribal origin stories and historical accounts.

“FAM collaborated with digital media and film specialists to integrate video, immersive audio and animation into the galleries,” said Hills. “Each space is specially crafted to create an immersive environment. Our 320-degree Origins Theater encircles visitors with vivid animations of tribal origin stories. In an area dedicated to Native sports and games, young visitors will delight in playing virtual Chunkey, a traditional game requiring great strength and agility.”

Twenty-nine multi-media experiences bring history to life, sharing both historical and contemporary voices. Visitors can hear a real-life account from a young girl about her family’s experience during the forced removal and climb inside a powwow van to learn about different dances and ways tribes celebrate.

“The shared timeline is divided into chapters and the gallery fills in the historical gaps between what most people have learned,” said Underwood. “Most history books stop including the Native perspective in the 1920s but the museum goes beyond [that timeframe].”

WINIKO: Life of an Object features selections from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. The exhibition compares the way non-Native scholars have represented Native objects and connects the objects to their families of origin.

“We have curated approximately 130 objects that were stored at the Smithsonian,” said Underwood. “The exhibit starts in full color with the objects in context, next when they were taken out of context. Then we were able to connect these objects with the families that originally owned or created the item to discover the story behind the piece, adding that cultural knowledge.”

A third exhibit shares the story of the museum itself and the efforts and people involved in its creation. The idea for the long-awaited museum was initiated in the 1990s and construction began in 2006, though it was delayed between 2012 and 2019 when state funding ran out.

The FAMily Discovery Center is still in the fundraising phase but will feature a pop-up book world that explores important cultural values such as respect, community, resilience and stewardship. Kids will be able to take on physical challenges and engage with hands-on, media-rich interactives in a playful, sometimes silly space.

“The cool thing about the design is that over the course of an hour the center goes from night to day and through the four seasons,” said Underwood.

In the meantime, families can enjoy special programming during the museum’s Weekend FAMily Fun hours, and these special activities are free with admission.

“From 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, FAM will offer hands-on activities in the galleries and in the Hall of The People,” said Hills. “These activities will change regularly, ensuring that there’s always something new to do at the museum.”

Shopping, dining & more

FAM offers several amenities the community can access without museum admission, including public art, a full-service restaurant, a café and a museum store that carries authentic Native-made items.

The museum has 19 commissioned original pieces of art including three public art features and 14 FAM-specific films. The exterior of the Origins Theater, at the beginning of the OKLA HOMMA exhibit, looks like Caddo pottery.

“Three artists contributed in different ways to this piece,” said Underwood. “Different generations using mediums, it’s a stunning piece.”

The restaurant and café will serve Native-inspired dishes. Many of the restaurant’s menu items focus on produce and game indigenous to Oklahoma and will highlight the distinct culinary differences between the tribes.

Museum admission is $15 for adults, $5 for kids ages 4 to 12 and free for kids 3 and under. The museum is open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., weekends 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is closed on Tuesdays. Plan your visit at famok.org.

Grand Opening Details

FAM Grand Opening: Sept. 18 & 19

The grand opening of the First Americans Museum on Sept. 18 and 19 will be a celebration on a grand scale. The celebration begins with a tribal procession followed by special guest speakers including Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby and U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo (Muscogee). Families can enjoy art, field games, dance performances, tribal demonstrations, fashion shows, storytelling and live music.

“There will also be eagles from some tribal aviaries,” said Underwood.

The restaurant and café will be open and there will be several food trucks on-site.

Admission for grand opening events is $5 and advanced purchase is required. Timed entry into the galleries will be limited and offered on a first-come, first-served basis. No parking is allowed on the museum grounds during opening weekend. Four parking lots will be available for parking and visitors will be shuttled to the museum. Parking is $10 per vehicle, with proceeds benefiting the Crooked Oak athletic and JROTC programs.

The opening celebration is from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday. $5 discount admission will continue through Monday, Sept. 20. 

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