Oklahoma City’s First Americans Museum (FAM) opened in September 2021. It is a unique new institution, honouring and offering a voice and platform to indigenous people on an unprecedented scale.
In the shape of two partial circles that intersect as a huge cosmological clock, the symbolism of its design is a fusion of beliefs and traditions common to the 39 tribal nations of Oklahoma. On the winter solstice, the sun shines directly through a tunnel cut into the earth mound. This floods the museum’s Festival Plaza with light.
At the summer solstice, the sun sits perfectly at the top of the mound.
The First Americans Museum describes itself as “ONE PLACE, MANY NATIONS”. Its mission is to share the cultural diversity, history, and contributions of the First Americans. Multimedia storytellers batwin + robin productions helped to craft four large-scale immersive experiences within the museum.
James Pepper Henry (Kaw Nation), executive director of the First Americans Museum, and Heather Ahtone (Choctaw Nation), director of curatorial affairs at the First Americans Museum, spoke with blooloop.
The origins of the First Americans Museum
“I’m a member of the Kaw Nation, one of the 39 tribes that are here in Oklahoma; one of the 573 federally recognised tribes in the United States. I’m also of Muskogee Creek heritage. The Kaw people are originally from Kansas; the state of Kansas takes its name from our tribe. I’m also vice chairman of the Kaw Nation, and have been working in the museum field for almost 38 years.”
Ahtone introduces herself:
“I am the director of curatorial affairs here at First Americans Museum. I’m a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, and descended also from a long line of beautiful Choctaw women.”
“Heather and I both have been in the museum field for quite a while. I entered it in the 1980s. It was a time when there was a lot of change happening in the sector with regard to indigenous peoples and the authority that indigenous peoples had.
“Prior to that time, particularly in this country, but also throughout the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth countries, indigenous peoples had no authority over the management and interpretation of their own cultural materials. That started to change here in the United States, towards the late 1980s. The catalyst was the acquisition by the Smithsonian of the old Museum of the American Indian on 155th and Broadway in New York City.”
Safeguarding an important collection
This was the largest private collection of Native American materials in the world.
“Its owner, George Gustav Heye, passed away in 1957. He had established an endowment to manage that museum which, over time, started to lose money. The museum started to sell items out of the collection. And that got the attention of Congress, in particular Senator Daniel Inouye from Hawaii, Senator Ted Stevens from Alaska, and, at that time, Congressman John McCain from Arizona.”
They felt the collection was too culturally important to the US to have it separated and sold to private collectors. At this point, Texan magnate and unsuccessful presidential aspirant Ross Perot offered to buy the Heye collection for around $280 million. He wanted to move it to Dallas, Texas, where he was thinking of building a museum.
Inouye, Stevens and McCain were concerned that Perot would split the collection, which was worth in the region of $4 billion, keeping the best items, and selling the rest at a profit. Congress stepped in and passed The National Museum of the American Indian Act (NMAI), enacted on November 28, 1989. This established the new National Museum of the American Indian as part of the Smithsonian family of museums.
“Things started to change at that time. As that collection was being acquired, there were several native activists, including a leading advocate for Native American rights, Suzan Harjo, who saw that if the federal government was going to acquire this collection, this was the time to start thinking about the sensitive materials that were part of it, and the appropriateness of the federal governors of the Smithsonian having these in their possession.
“They pushed for legislation to create a repatriation protocol for the Smithsonian, which became the template for The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act 1990 (NAGPRA). This created a protocol for all museums in the United States to offer certain objects for repatriation based on a list of criteria.”
“Any tax-exempt museum in the United States, including universities, would have to supply inventories to all the tribes in the United States and allow for a consultation process and the return of sensitive materials.
“Things really started to shift at that point. Museums then found themselves obliged by statute to consult with tribes, and to give tribes an authority that they hadn’t given them previously.”
Some museums were more progressive than others with regard to their relationships with native communities:
“The idea of shared authority came out of that,” he says:
“Prior to that time, it had been up to the museums to decide whether they wanted to consult with tribes with regard to cultural materials associated with those communities. With shared authority, now native peoples were invited to the table to consult about the management of some of the sensitive materials in the collection. It also opened the door for the interpretation of collections and development of content.”
A place of authority
During the 1990s, this idea of shared authority and of affording native representatives a voice in the interpretation and management of collections took root.
“What Heather and I are doing is to push that envelope a bit further,” he comments:
“Back in the early days, there were only a handful of Native Americans who were curators in museums, or who had PhDs in art and art history and anthropology. That has changed, as many native peoples found themselves responsible for hundreds, if not thousands of objects through that NAGPRA process.”
“Many of us went back to school to get museum studies degrees, or anthropology degrees, or art history degrees. So there is a critical mass now of native museum professionals, something that wasn’t the case 30 years ago.
“Now, we have the opportunity to move the needle even further. Rather than that idea of shared authority, where the museums invite us in and let us have a seat at the table, we are now setting the table ourselves. It’s our table. We are the ones that have the authority over the interpretation and management of our collections, as we should.”
A new model
There are tribal museums around the United States, run by tribal entities, and managed by tribal citizens.
This museum is different:
“We have taken this to the next level, and on a larger scale. Our museum tells the collective story of the 39 tribal nations that were removed from our homelands around the contiguous United States. We are representing so many tribes in one place, and having our voices be the primary voices in the content.”
“Heather is among the group that has the academic credentials to be able to have these conversations with other academics within the field. We’ve really pushed that envelope. The thing we’re most proud of on this project is that it’s not ‘them’ and ‘they’; it’s ‘we’ and ‘us’. All of the voices that you hear in our exhibitions are first-person voices of indigenous peoples, members of tribes here in Oklahoma.”
“Heather and I are proponents of the fact that true authority for the interpretation of these items doesn’t reside with somebody with a PhD or somebody who’s a museum director, like myself. It really resides within the community.
“We understand that you don’t need a PhD to be an authority in your own culture. So we look up to the elders with whom we worked on this project as the ones that have the authority on this content.”
Building a team at the First Americans Museum
“When JPH asked me to come and join the team here, upon arrival, there was a small group of people who’d been carrying the hopes and dreams and ambitions of this project for quite some time. Some preliminary research had been done.
“In the course of looking at all of that, it became clear that there would need to be significantly more research done, with the emphasis that the tribes needed to be partners in this work rather than consultants.”
“We built a team with a view to the needs I knew we would have to address in the gallery. We hired a linguist, a musicologist, a policy analyst, and a historian. Then I hired an assistant to help manage the organising of all of the information, and a collections manager to deal with managing the objects, and the cultural protocols appropriate to the materials.
“We built a team that grew from four women to a team of 11, all of us tribal citizens.”
Ahtone tried to take some care in ensuring a gender balance:
“I recognised, in doing so, that within our tribes, gender protocols are still upheld and practised. We have some men on our team, and we needed to transcend some of the concerns that exist more broadly in the Western world and consider, from our cultural philosophies, the appropriate ways for us to manage, develop, and cultivate the resources that we need, and to manage building the relationships with the tribes.
“Our team was able to construct a framework, and figure out how we could fit the tribes within that framework in a way that provided equity. Not every tribe is in there multiple times, but no tribe is missing.”
Finding a balance at the First Americans Museum
At each pass, as the exhibitions developed, Ahtone’s team did what she calls a tribal equity pass. This ensured that nothing was too heavily laden on certain tribes. She explains:
“With 39 tribes from the Pacific to the Atlantic and the Great Lakes down to the Gulf of Mexico, we have a lot of cultural diversity. Yet there are also a lot of gaps in the scholarship existing about these tribes.”
“There were certain tribes, the Osage, the Kiowa, the Cheyenne, and the Comanche, that have coloured the American mythical ideas of what it is to be a First American. Knowledge about those communities was abundant. But there were also the tribes for whom we had to struggle and work diligently to make sure that we included them in images. It was important that we fit them within the storyline in a way that gave them a presence.
“What we wanted was that every native kid coming into the museum from our tribes could see themselves there.”
She references a childhood memory of her own:
“I can remember, as a 12-year-old, playing hide and seek with my sister at the Denver Art Museum. I saw all these native American things, and one was a cradle board.”
They stopped their game:
“It was really stunning, and when I looked, it had been made by my great-grandmother. It felt wonderful to see our family, our culture, directly represented within the gallery. But, as I read that label as a 12-year-old kid, I said to my sister: ‘They don’t know anything about our great-grandmother.’
“I’d heard stories about her, growing up. I knew her beadwork; I knew her aesthetic designs, but they didn’t know anything about her. Looking back, I think that moment sowed the seeds of my becoming a curator. I really wanted to be able to bring in the culture and the humanity of the people who made all these amazing things for our community.”
This was something that was at the front of her mind as she thought about the museum’s galleries:
“Our team worked hard to make sure that we were thinking about kids, and that we were approaching our storytelling in a way that would be confrontational for some of these really difficult historical moments that often get distilled in many museums, and in that distillation disempower our native presence.”
A seat at the table
Native peoples have not been part of the storytelling in museums. She says:
“Our cultural materials have been part of museums in the US for a long time. Since the very first museum opened in Independence Hall, in fact. But others have used our things and spoken about us, while we have been erased and silenced.”
“We wanted to use a first-person voice and to confront people with the realities that we live with, the realities of our history, that our community has had to carry. We want to share those realities, good and bad, to broaden the number of people who know these stories, and to help strengthen the relationships and the spaces that we hold on the continent with our cultures.
“Those are the parameters that we brought to the work.”
Four key values at the First Americans Museum
Ahtone had been, at this point, developing a methodology for her own work as a curator. She explains:
“It relied on four core tenets that are found within indigenous cultures: respect, reciprocity, responsibility, and relationships.
“We use those four core tenets to guide our work. Those help us to make decisions, to navigate and cultivate the relationships that we needed with the tribal communities, acting out of respect and reciprocity. Their application helped us to build the exhibitions. They helped us to build an ethos for our department and contributed to the project’s success.”
“Some of the tribes were resistant initially to the work that we were doing. That’s because museums have not treated native people well. But when we pushed the respect and the reciprocity, it opened up doors for the conversations. That allowed us to give those tribes the agency that they had so long been denied.”
Telling a collective history
She explains the narrative cohesion of the galleries:
“What we tried to do was build a collective history for the continent through our tribal stories. We are drawing people into what’s amazing about Oklahoma today; the diversity and the value of our cultures within this landscape. We have a section where we celebrate what it is to be a First American today. We laid that story with a certain storytelling arc. There is a particular zone where we lay in a heavy gut punch.”
Their work had guidance from an advisory board:
“We call them the Knowledge Givers because they continue to share their knowledge with us and to give us advice.”
“That area where we laid the gut punch was somewhere they pushed us, urging us to make that punch harder. I think we ended up finding a good balance.
“In my experience in curating, it’s important to avoid sentimentality. People will be alienated if they don’t share it. But we also wanted to emphasise some of the heavy facts. Our indigenous children grow up with certain heavy stories. These are personal family stories, and we wanted to bring that to an audience of all ages.”
An emotional journey
In this area of the museum, the lights are dim. She explains:
“It’s very dark and moody. We found that making the area as dark as we could allowed people to lower their guard. It allows them to open themselves up, both emotionally and mentally, to experience and hear these stories. I regularly see people emerging from that area very solemn, often wiping their eyes.”
The rest is more celebratory:
“We hope that we uplift people,” she says:
“We help them see how we share some very common, similar, humanistic values, even though our cultures might be different. For instance, we love sports; Oklahoma is a sports-loving state, so we have a section on that. We celebrate our warriors, the veterans, and the people who help defend our human rights.”
“Also, we also have a little bit of fun looking at how our cultures get stereotyped. We poke that in the eye, in a way where we’re not poking the visitor in the eye, we’re just sharing with them that maybe this is not the way; maybe there are better ways of sharing our cultures and valuing each other.
“We also explore how those stereotypes have been used as political rhetoric to harm our communities, take our land, erase our cultures, our languages. By doing that, we expose it in a way that non-native people can see how these things have been ingrained in them, and in society, and we can say: ‘Hey, all of us can do better.’”
“Jim spoke about that collection used to build the National Museum of the American Indian. We have a whole gallery dedicated to looking at how these objects represent our cultures and our people.”
Located in the Mezzanine Gallery of the South Wing of FAM is WINIKO: Life of an Object, Selections from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. This returns objects from the 39 tribes to Oklahoma for the first time in 100 years.
‘Winiko’ is the Caddo word for ‘everything on earth, in the universe, and beyond’. This reflects the Native belief that our cultural materials hold the spiritual essence of their makers and those who wore or used them.
“The Winiko Gallery has three zones,” Ahtone says:
“They are Creation, Collecting, and Continuum. In Creation, we look at the materials that are used and the designs that are used. We explore how these objects came out of our community.”
Made with Love exhibition at the First Americans Museum
There is also a subsection titled ‘Made with Love’. Items on display here include a beautiful Osage coat, an Ottawa dress, and a red Odawa child’s dress:
“The care that these objects are made with is really explicit,” she comments. “Our curatorial team wanted to bring the objects to Oklahoma, and we wanted to connect them with their cultures. We do that through the labels and through tribal consultations.
“Connecting the objects and the cultures with the people is important. So often in museum collections, the individual humanity of the people who made the objects or used them is absent. It is replaced by a cultural signifier.
“As we worked with the tribes and on the labels, one of the ways that we really tried to amplify the uniqueness of the cultures to the objects is that the indigenous term for the object is the first thing you read. We have reconnected them with their community and their culture through language, and the placement of that term. We do also provide an English translation of it to the right.
“The second thing we did was to work with the tribal communities to understand more about the objects and the role they may have played. How did these objects carry our cultures? How do these objects represent events or people?”
Connecting with families
Before the museum’s opening, the team were able to connect some of the objects with descendants of the people who made or sold them. One such object is an Osage coat, which was reunited with Eddie Redeagle, the great-great-grandson of its original owner, for whom it had been made.
“We facilitated that reunion. We actually made arrangements with the national museum to allow the families to come and be with the object.”
“This is amazing, because these objects were collected in Oklahoma around the turn of the 20th century, with the belief that by the end of the 20th century, no culture would be making these anymore. We would be assimilated into the dominant society.”
“We would be extinct,” Ahtone says.
“These objects have been in a warehouse for a hundred years,” Henry says. “Most of them have never been on display before. The families had no idea that these items existed.”
“When the truck arrived from the Smithsonian, we found that ironically the person who collected these on behalf of George Gustav Heye took pretty good notes. He had listed the names of the families that he collected these from, never knowing that at some point in the future, we’d be reuniting these objects with the descendants of those from whom they were collected.
“Through these amazing reunions of these items with their family members, we learn exponentially more about the object by making that connection. You would get the basic information in the museum – it’s a coat made of broadcloth with beading, maybe associated with such-and-such tribe.”
Reunions at the First Americans Museum
Through the reunion initiative, so much more personal information emerges:
“The family says, ‘We know who made this. We know what the design patterns mean, we know what ceremony this was a part of.’
“In the case of one jacket, the family has been inspired to renew it by creating a similar garment for the original wearer’s great-grandson. They have ceremonial drum keepers within their tribe, for their warrior societies.”
“This jacket was worn by his great-grandfather as a drum keeper. Now they’re going to make a new one for the grandson, who’s going to be a drum keeper, too. It has really inspired people within the community to continue these traditions. And we have increased our knowledge base tenfold by having these reunions with the descendants of the people who made the objects.
“Most museums don’t go that far to establish a human connection.”
“I don’t think they imagine that this is possible,” Ahtone says. “But it really is. It has taken a diligent amount of work. A lot of protocol has had to be gone through, with both the tribe and the families, to make this happen.”
Linking to the present
The gallery displays artefacts in a way that links them to the present.
“Another item we were able to reunite with its family was an Iowa breechcloth, which had been worn by a gentleman. It’s a beautiful object in and of itself. There are two mechanisms that we implemented within the gallery.”
“If you look just below the breechcloth, you’ll see its label. At the top of it is a photo of the gentleman who sold this object to Mark Greenman Harrington, who was working on behalf of George Gustav Heye, and below that is a contemporary photo, because we sent a photographer out into the community to take portraits of the descendants.
“As visitors go through the gallery, they will know that we’ve enacted this reunion with this object because we’re able to breach the historical timeline through these photographs of the maker and the descendants, the ancestor and the descendants. In this case, we have a photo of two women holding photos of their great-grandfather alongside the breechcloth in its display. We also had them video recorded so that we can play the video for the visitors.”
A series of pre-, during- and post-reunion recordings of the descendants of the original owners of objects forges a human connection between the artefacts and what they meant to the people and communities from which they originated.
“We made all that into a film which we show in the gallery, so that people can hear the weight in the voices of the family members of what this means to them,” she says.
The National Museum of the American Indian, prior to these reunions taking place, set a time limit:
“They told us that we could have the time until the objects went into the cases to do it. But after that, they would not be able to facilitate more trips; it was not in the budget. Since sharing the film with them, we now have the green light to take another step. Something my team and I are in the process of initiating now is going back out to the tribes. We want to see who would like to pursue this initiative.”
A new vision
The value in this, she believes, comes out of an indigenous vision for what a museum can do:
“It lies in recognising that our people today still know and value the relationships across time with our ancestors.”
She refers back to the Iowa breechcloth:
“It joined the collection in 1910, but at that point, it was already 50 years old. These connections are transcending time and activating an indigenous perspective on time. We’re still have a connection with these people through these objects, and it’s an incredible thing to witness. I feel honoured that this is something that I get to be a part of.
“I’m grateful for what the First Americans Museum is able to do, and the trust and faith of so many people in our community that it took to build this institution, so we can raise the bar of what museums are expected to do at a human level.”
Indigenising the museum
“Museums, for most indigenous peoples, are reminders of what has been taken from us. The first museums were in the UK; repositories of the spoils of colonisation. There is a movement to decolonise the museum, but the museum is inherently colonial; its roots are in colonisation. So that’s not our approach.”
“We don’t say we’re going to decolonise the museum, we say we’re going to indigenise the museum. We are going to bring our values, our methodologies, into the museum setting. That will make it our own. We’re going to appropriate the museum, versus things that have been appropriated from us over time.
“Essentially, we are reinventing the museum in the way we see the world, rather than decolonising it, which would mean giving everything back and shutting it down.”
Personal stories at the First Americans Museum
He shares a personal story:
“As we were going through the purchase receipts from when this collector came through Oklahoma, I found out that he had an engagement with my tribe. There is a picture here depicting a delegation of Kaw Indians that went to Washington DC in 1909 to negotiate a treaty. In the photo, the gentleman second from the left is my great-grandfather.
“This picture was taken in Bethesda, Maryland. There was a studio there. When tribal delegations came to Washington, they would haul everybody out to the studio and get their portraits taken. This picture of the delegation hangs in all our houses; all our tribal members have it. It’s the iconic picture of our tribal leaders from that time. It has been hanging on my wall my whole life.”
When he was going through the purchase receipts, looking at the names denoting the objects’ provenance, Pepper noticed the name Mehojah:
“Mehojah, in my tribe’s language, means ‘Grey Blanket.’ It was the name of one of my tribe’s leaders. He is sitting next to my great-grandfather in the picture. When I saw the name, I went through the drawers at the Smithsonian and found the item from the purchase receipt: an otter collar. I recognised it right away. He’s wearing it in the photograph.”
Excited, Henry contacted the family, telling them he’d found their forebear’s otter collar. He says:
“I found out that the delegation had returned from Washington DC in 1909. Two months later, the collector had come through and purchased this item. The fact that we even have historic photographic evidence of who wore it was amazing.
“I had a little reunion myself with Jesse Mehojah’s grandson. It was my great-grandfather and his grandfather in that picture. I brought him to the museum and showed him his grandfather’s collar.
“All these incredible stories that are in this exhibit – and we’ve only shared a taste of them – show how we’ve gone the extra step to show how these items are associated with real people. We’re not a dead culture. When people see these objects in the museum, they think we no longer exist, that we’ve vanished. But we show these have a real-world connection.
“Additionally, as Heather was explaining, there is a continuum of this; we’re continuing to make these connections for our different cultural practices.”
A key decision
Nobody has done what the First Americans Museum is doing on this scale.
“I want to touch on the name of this museum, First Americans Museum. During the development of this museum, the name was the American Indian Culture Centre and Museum. That is a mouthful, for one thing.
“We thought about that a little bit, realising that not only do we have an opportunity to rename the museum something a little bit easier to roll off the tongue, but in some ways, we had the opportunity to rebrand an entire race of people.”
“People have called us Indians or American Indians for hundreds of years because somebody made a mistake. If Columbus had been looking for China, what would our name be then? We thought about this a lot. We thought that, as we’re taking control of the narrative; as we’re taking control of our own history; as we’re telling history from our perspective, we should also take control of how people refer to us.
“We are not Indians. Indians are from India. My grandparents’ generation still calls themselves Indians. ‘American Indian’ became more popular with my parent’s generation. As Gen X, we say ‘Native American’, which is much more accurate.
“But if you ever fill out an employment application here in the United States, it asks your ethnicity. It’ll say, White, Hispanic, Asian, and then there’s a box for Native American. 20% of people will check that box, thinking that, ‘Well, I was born in the US, so I’m a Native American.’
“So that still isn’t sufficiently accurate.”
A new name
“We looked to our neighbours to the north, in Canada,” he continues. “About 30 to 40 years ago, the indigenous communities in Canada decided to call themselves First Nations. That has a lot of power to it. It reminds people that there were nations of people here long before the arrival of Europeans.
“Referring to ourselves as First Americans made sense to us. I remember getting into an argument with a government official who said, ‘George Washington and Paul Jefferson were the first Americans’. I had to say, ‘We’re not talking about citizenship. They were the first US citizens. We’re talking about geography.’
“There’s no common term among indigenous peoples throughout the Americas for what we call the Western hemisphere. So, we have adopted the term America or Americas. Even though, to be accurate, it takes its name from an Italian explorer named Amerigo Vespucci.”
First Americans Museum: taking control of the narrative
Paradoxically, the first Americans in the United States were the last people to have citizenship. He explains:
“We are the first Americans, but the last US citizens. That’s because we weren’t granted citizenship until 1924. We did not have universal voting rights in this country until 1965. We are the last people to have the freedoms that everybody else had.”
“We are the First Americans. We’re using that term now, and it’s starting to catch on in other places. We have not only rebranded our museum, but we’ve also rebranded our people.
“It’s time we took control of how people refer to us, rather than somebody else giving us a moniker.”
All images of FAM credited to Ryan Linton and courtesy of the First Americans Museum