10 things to know about the new First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City


In the afternoon sun, the glass and steel edifice near downtown Oklahoma City shines like a beacon.

Staff members of the highly anticipated First Americans Museum hope the dazzling facade draws people from diverse backgrounds – locals and outsiders, native and non-native, school groups and curious adults – to the prominent new landmark.

“Our location is literally at the crossroads of America: I-35 and I-40 and I-44 aren’t too far. More than 200,000 cars pass us every day in summer, about 125,000 in winter. We couldn’t be in a better place, ”said James Pepper Henry, director and CEO of the museum and a member of the Kaw Nation.

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Almost 40 years after its initial conception, the highly anticipated First Americans Museum opens on Saturday with a two-day grand opening celebration featuring Indigenous dancers and musicians, cultural demonstrations and more.

Designed and equipped with input from the 39 tribes headquartered in Oklahoma, the $ 175 million, 175,000 square foot museum should be a major tourist attraction and an important addition to OKC’s cultural landscape.

“I think it’s beautiful to have some kind of modern native architecture,” said Pepper Henry. “A lot of people want to put us in the past. And we are looking to the future, we are looking at our future, not just behind.”

Here are 10 highlights from the new First Americans Museum:

The People's Room at the First Americans Museum can be seen on Tuesday, August 31, 2021.

1. The People’s Hall

For years, one of the few signs that construction of the museum had actually started was the curved white skeleton of what was eventually built in the Hall of the People. Standing 90 feet tall, this skeleton was filled with over 800 glittering panes of glass.

The space can accommodate around 350 visitors seated for a banquet or 800 to 900 people standing for an event.

“The Hall of the People is a modern version … of a Wichita Grass Lodge. And the reason we chose this particular structure is that the Wichitas, along with the Caddo and a few other tribes, are indigenous to the Oklahoma, ”said Pepper said Henri. “We wanted to honor the original peoples of this land.”

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"Touch above," by artists Cherokee Demos Glass and Bill Glass Jr., is on display at the First Americans Museum.  Tuesday August 31, 2021. The open hand is the universal greeting of welcome for Native Americans, and the cross represents the four directions, which means everyone is welcome.

2. “Touch up”

With an open hand suspended from a stainless steel arch, the outdoor sculpture “Touch to Above,” by artists Cherokee Demos Glass and Bill Glass Jr., provides a gateway for visitors.

“A closed hand would mean you’re not welcome, but an open hand means you’re welcome here,” Pepper Henry said.

The cross symbol on the metal palm represents the four directions.

“What we are saying is that it doesn’t matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter who you are, you are welcome here,” he said. “We wanted it to be the first thing people see.”

The genesis stories of four Native American tribes based in Oklahoma are presented at the Origins Theater at the First Americans Museum on Tuesday, August 31, 2021.

3. Theater of Origins

The 320-degree Origins Theater exterior features a swirling design created by acclaimed Norman artist Jereldine “Jeri” Redcorn and has been carefully constructed to resemble one of his Caddo pots.

Inside, the immersive environment features animated short films sharing the genesis stories of four tribes: the Caddo, Pawnee, Yuchi, and Otoe-Missouria.

“We selected origin stories that broadly represent the tribes: some came from the earth, some came from the sky, some came from the water,” said Ginny Underwood, the museum’s marketing and communications manager. , which is Comanche.

She said visual and voiceover artists from all four tribes worked on the shorts, with New York-based batwin + robin productions animating the illustrations.

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The First Americans Museum's first-floor exhibits explore different aspects of tribal life and history on Tuesday, August 31, 2021.

4. Pow-wow van

Another immersive attraction, the Powwow Van inspires visitors to jump inside and travel the “Oklahoma Powwow Highway,” with photographs, video clips, and text in map form.

“You go around cultural events across the state,” Underwood said. “I think a lot of people have questions about the different gatherings, and it’s kind of an introduction to those experiences.”

The exhibition "WINIKO: Life of an object" can be seen on the mezzanine of the First Americans Museum on Tuesday, August 31, 2021.

5. The disappeared football

The mezzanine exhibition “WINIKO: Life of an object” includes 144 pieces on long-term loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Many were collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from tribes in Oklahoma.

“‘Winiko’ is a Caddo word which means life in all, even inanimate objects, ”said Pepper Henry. “We have reunited families with these objects… and we are starting to understand that it is not just inanimate objects that are on display. ”

In the case of Shawnee p’thee’kawee, or football, it’s actually what’s not on display that’s important. The conservation team had originally planned to put one in view in a crate of native sporting goods between sticks for the Cherokee stickball and pieces from a Caddo female hand set. But the p’thee’kawee is a ceremonial item that is meant to be destroyed after use.

“We consulted with the Shawnee Nation, and they said it was a sacred object that shouldn’t be on display. So we have the location for it, but not the object,” Underwood said. “It is a testament to our perspective as a curator… and the care and respect that has been put into all of the exhibits.”

Chairs designed by Native Americans are installed in the restaurant of the First Americans Museum on Tuesday, July 27, 2021.

6. The restaurant

Chic and cozy, the museum’s full-service restaurant overlooking the park will feature a ground-floor menu featuring traditional recipes from Oklahoma’s 39 tribal nations. Potawatomi chef Loretta Barrett Oden, star of the Emmy-winning PBS series “Seasoned with Spirit,” helped develop the menu.

“People think Native American food is like Indian tacos and fried bread. We call it post-product… We will develop a menu based on all traditional recipes including bison, turkey, salmon and even shrimp, ”said Pepper Henry.

“We source directly from the tribes when we can. Of course, we will also have a good coffee bar, and we actually source from a locally owned coffee company.”

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Kaw Nation director and CEO James Pepper Henry speaks at the Xchange Theater at the First Americans Museum on Tuesday, August 31, 2021.

7. Xchange Theater

Visitors passing through the Xchange entrance can enter the museum shop, restaurant and Xchange theater without paying entry. The latter is a 75-seat theater with wraparound 8K video screens.

The concept is a space for the exchange of cultures, languages ​​and ways of life.

“We can bring school kids here and tell stories. We can have dance demonstrations here. We have cameras here, and if someone is demonstrating basket weaving, we can zoom in on their hands and the display it on the screen so people can see the details, ”said Pepper Henry.

“At night, we have this amazing lighting system here.… We can turn it into a dance floor; we can put a small group in there. It’s a really great and flexible space for us. But the idea is for let this place come alive with programming – and everything is free in this part. ”

A winter solstice tunnel is constructed through the mound on the grounds of the First Americans Museum.  Members of the Board of Trustees of the American Indian Cultural Center Foundation and the Native American Cultural & Educational Authority visit the First Americans Museum on July 27, 2021.

8. The mound

One of the greatest features of the land is a mound made up of 500,000 cubic meters of earth.

“It’s a tribute to our ancestors who were here before us. One of the great civilizations of North America was right here in Oklahoma before the Europeans arrived, and that was the Spiro Mounds,” Pepper said. Henry.

While not ready in time for the unveiling, Underwood said the top of the mound will be paved and lighting and handrails will be added. People will be able to access the mound from outside or from the second floor of the museum and take a 45-minute walk to the top of the mound.

Works by Native American artists are on sale in the First Americans Museum boutique on Tuesday, August 31, 2021.

9. The gift shop

About 80% of the stock lining the shelves and shelves of the museum’s airy department store was either made by Indigenous artists or by tribal-owned and operated businesses, said store manager Tom Farris, who is Otoe- Missouri and Cherokee.

“The mission is to really make it a market for Oklahoma artists so that they can sell works,” Farris said. “We have worked with a number of artists to create exclusive lines of jewelry and other products.”

The store features contemporary art from potter Cherokee Karin Walkingstick, Chickasaw blacksmith Daniel Worcester, Caddo, Delaware, and Kickapoo bead artist Yonavea Hawkins and more.

While the museum’s Family Discovery Center isn’t ready for grand opening, the gift shop does offer a glimpse of the adorable animal guides who will eventually populate this pop-up book world.

Exhibits on Native American history and cultures are on display at the First Americans Museum on Tuesday, August 31, 2021.

10. The farewell

The ashes of the blessing of the museum floor in 2005 are stored in the calm and colorful final section of the first floor. With the cedar, sweetgrass, tobacco and sage on display along with the large screens that sometimes appear to ignite with smoke, Underwood said the area is meant to be a reminder of a cleansing ceremony to purify or cleanse.

“We researched and tried to figure out how to fire people from that section of the museum, as a goodbye. And neither tribe has a goodbye word,” Underwood said.

“So this is the section where it’s kind of a virtual blur… thanking people for coming and then inviting them to see us again.”

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Official opening of the First Americans Museum

  • When: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on September 18 and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on September 19.
  • Or: First Americans Museum, 659 First Americans Blvd., Oklahoma City
  • Admission: Timed tickets cost $ 5 per person, per day, and first come, first served.
  • Tickets and information: https://famok.org.

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