In addition to casino resorts, Native Americans have built museums to educate other Americans about their history and culture.
One example is the Chickasaw Cultural Center, which opened in Sulphur in south central Oklahoma a year ago. Considered the largest tribal cultural center in the country, the center covers the Chickasaw heritage in myriad ways: through demonstrations of cooking, archery, stomp dance and stickball; through storytelling and spirit lessons; and through tours of exhibits and nature walks.
An accurate replica of a Chickasaw village is the centerpiece; it is anchored by a 1,200-square-foot replica of an 18th-century council house that is topped by a grass roof and has walls of wooden beams interwoven with small branches that are bound by a clay paste. The council house serves as an orientation center. There, visitors watch a short film. When the film ends, the screen rises, revealing a path into the Spirit Forest, the center’s largest exhibit, where theatrical lighting and sounds duplicate dawn to night in the forest.
Another active area at the center is a 320-person tiered performance theater that features lectures, plays, storytelling, crafts such as bow-making, and cultural ceremonies. Tours also begin in the central meeting place.
“Our campus is a big circle around a plaza,” said Amanda Cobb-Greetham, administrator of the history and culture division of the center, “so everything is within easy walking distance.”
Groups can dine on traditional Chickasaw fare, such as grape dumplings, Indian fry bread, pishofa, and burgers and chili made from buffalo meat, during events or at the Aaimpa’ Cafe.
For meetings, most groups use the Aaiitafama Room, an art gallery in the exhibit center. The 2,240-square-foot gallery and its foyer can be closed off from the rest of the center for privacy. A second meeting room debuted after Memorial Day. An 1,800-square-foot meeting room in the Research Center, which can be divided into three rooms, can also be combined with the Aaiitafama Room.
Water features and gardens add tranquility; the use of building materials such as copper, native stone and wood adds architectural interest. Landscaping throughout the campus features trees and plants that are indigenous to Oklahoma as well as to traditional Chickasaw homelands of the Southeast.
“People who visit comment what a peaceful, serene setting it is,” said Cobb-Greetham.
An ancient Indian village is also part of the Cherokee Heritage Center, which opened in 1967 on the site of the original Cherokee Female Seminary near Tahlequah. In addition to Adam’s Corner, a reconstructed 1890s village, the center includes the Cherokee National Museum, which houses the Trail of Tears exhibition. The chapel can be used for meetings of 40 to 45, but the museum and 44-acre grounds can only be booked after hours for events with approval.
“Our mission is to promote, preserve and teach Cherokee history so to meet here during hours needs to match our mission,” said Susan Cro, reservation specialist. “When Ron Cooper, a member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, terminated his Trail of Tears walk recently, his wife gave him a reception in the atrium of the museum.”
The center stopped using the amphitheater about five years ago after the harsh Oklahoma winters took its toll on the outdoor facility, said Cro.
Work on another American Indian museum has stalled because of funding issues with the state of Oklahoma. More than $91 million has already been spent on the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, on the Oklahoma River east of downtown Oklahoma City, but work is at a standstill on the half-finished facility.