For years the American Indian Cultural Center & Museum (AICCM) has sat dormant leaving a lot of people wondering if the once envisioned cultural center and museum would ever reach its final stage.
That time has begun.
The construction phase has commenced, 13 years after the original ground blessing was performed and seven years after construction was halted on the project.
“A lot of things happened … the original designs of this facility go all the way back to 1999. The first drawings and concepts came out in the early 2000s, and then there was a ground blessing ceremony held here in 2006 and they broke ground that year and started construction,” Jim Henry, AICCM director said. “In 2008 the economy took a turn for the worse and we had a couple of bad tornadoes in Moore that put some pressure on the state budge for disaster relief, and the legislature got a little bit more conservative and didn’t view this project the way the previous legislature had viewed this project. So all of those factors contributed to the state pulling their funding away from this project.”
In the original planning stages, the state of Oklahoma could see the AICCM as a way to attract more tourists and international visitors to the state. The project got started with sites being looked at in the Tulsa area and in Edmond, when the current location was finally decided upon. But the site was originally an old oil field, Oil Field #1, with over 50 oil rigs back in the early 1900s, so there was a lot of clean up the state performed in preparation to build the AICCM.
“It’s a great location because it’s literally at the crossroads of America. We’ve got highways I-40, I-35, I-235 and I-44 is not too far away and ODOT tells us over 120,000 cars drive right by us every single day on those highways and it’s even more in the summer time. In terms of location, it’s a great location,” Henry said.
Although it’s been seven years since any construction has taken place, what had been done has been well maintained over the years, making the pathway smoother to resuming construction Henry explained.
“They maintained what had been done on the project, and fortunately for us the shell of the building had been completed and the HVAC system was in place to maintain the environmental controls in the facility. They stopped construction in 2012 and a lot of people think this building has just gone foul; well it hasn’t because we’ve been maintaining the facility all this time. We’ve had round the clock security, the climate control, HVAC system has been running this whole time, so it’s been maintained very well. The building is in great shape, even though there isn’t anything in it … yet,” Henry said as he looked through the tall glass windows peering to the center circle of the structure.
When the deal was struck with the state to get the AICCM project up and going again it was about the same time as the OKPOP Museum project in Tulsa, Okla., was also being funded. The state set aside money for the OKPOP project and at the same time set aside money for the AICCM project.
“Originally they pledged $40 million if we would go out and raise $40 million in other dollars to match it. So we did. We went out and raised a little over $40 million to get the project going again and then the state came back and said, ‘well we can’t do $40 million now, we can only do $25 million.’ But that left us about $15 million short. So we scaled down the project to a $65 million project to get it going again. We are still trying to go out and raise the additional $15 million so we can add back some of the things we had to scale back on. We are about $8 million into that $15 million raised and have 18 months to raise the additional $7 million and we’ve had support from almost every tribe in Oklahoma,” Henry said.
Henry’s belief is tribes were reluctant to be a part of the project in the beginning because it was a state project and the state was the one who was going to receive the sale tax revenue from the cultural center and the state was saying this was really for the tribes so the tribes should be paying for this, “but really it’s to serve both contingencies because it’s for all of us, for the people of Oklahoma, for the tribes of Oklahoma, and it will help bring more people to Oklahoma,” he said.
With all the background information put aside, Henry’s excitement comes shining through when he began talking about the upcoming plans for the cultural center and the impact it will have, not only on tribal members but the public as a whole.
“This really means a lot to me personally because of the stories we are trying to tell. I don’t know if a non-Native or non-tribal member would have the same level of passion and the sense of importance of this (project). To me, this is probably the most important thing I will do in my professional career, is to finish this project, to get it up and running and sustainable because it’s also telling my family’s stories. This is my story, this is your story and I don’t know how many thousands of tribal members are here in Oklahoma but this is all of our story. I’m happy to say my curatorial team here; we are all tribal members from here in Oklahoma. I didn’t hire someone from like the east coast to do this. We got people here that understand the histories and we are able to tell our stories from our perspectives,” Henry said.
The main takeaway Henry and his team hope people will take with them after visiting the cultural center and museum is ‘we’re still here, we still exist.’
“We’re not living in the past, we have a continuum of our cultures and our heritages but in this modern world we live in. Our cultures are still rich and vibrant, we haven’t lost our cultural lifeways and we want people to understand that. And we have such diversity here in Oklahoma. We have different customs, different languages, different artistic styles, and a lot of people don’t understand there is such diversity here,” Henry said.
He compares what happened in Oklahoma with all the different tribes being relocated from all around the United States to Oklahoma to the analogy of taking every country in Europe, not in terms of population but in terms of languages, beliefs and customs and moving everybody to a place the size of England.
“When people think of it that way they are life, ‘oh my God. You’re putting Portuguese in with Norwegians and Czechoslovakians, and you are putting them all in the same place.’ And that’s what happened here basically,” Henry said.
The AICCM is already working with Oklahoma City school districts and adjacent school districts to not only get kids to the cultural center, but helping to develop curriculum that will match their experience when they visit the cultural center and to start incorporating some of the Native perspective on history that kids are not learning in the history books.
“The true history of America is not the history you read about in the history books. That’s the colonial history of America and there are many other perspectives about the history of our country and we are looking to get 50,000 school kids in here a year. Usually it’s the fourth graders and eighth graders because that’s when they teach American Indian history in schools,” Henry said. “It’s a real opportunity to share all of our collective heritages because it’s not just one it’s 39, and to share all of this with the broader public. And to tell our stories. And to be honest and truthful about the displacement of the tribes, the relocations and it’s not a fairy tale story. Terrible things happened to the tribes when they arrived here and before they arrived here. The removal was terrible, coming here and the allotment act that broke up tribal lands, then boarding schools for four generations where children were taken and sent away to have our culture and language removed from them. But despite all of that our perseverance has prevailed.”
One of the major changes Henry and his team made to the cultural center was the implementation of a full service restaurant because as Henry said, “how can you share your culture if you’re not sharing the food of your culture?” They are hoping to source their foods from the tribes who grow their own produce and have their own bison herd, including the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes’ bison herd.
“Real Indigenous foods, like bison, salmon. When people think of Native food they think frybread and Indian Tacos, but that’s commodity foods not real Indigenous foods of our culture. We are putting in a full service kitchen. It will be a 115-seat restaurant experience, and we are working with Loretta Barrett Oden, who is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, an award winning Native chef. She had her own cooking show on PBS for a while and she won an Emmy for her cooking show. So we are working with her to create this unique Native menu, traditional recipes with a modern twist to them. These are all good foods good for you, they’re delicious, they’re healthy and they help tell the stories of our tribes here in Oklahoma,” Henry said.
Another major change Henry implemented was changing the 900 square foot gift shop into a 4,000 square foot gift shop where they will showcase authentic Native handmade items from the many talented artists living right here in Oklahoma.
“Selling unique one of a kind hand crafted items from our Native artisans, the real deals and there is not a central venue for them to sell their art,” Henry said.
And there are many more exciting plans taking shape, from hands-on children’s activities, stepping into different seasons through virtual reality to hosting live dance performances and so much more left to be unveiled.
“We see the 39 tribes of Oklahoma as our constituents. That we have a special obligation to provide services and other support to the tribes versus having them be a customer, so to speak. This facility will be open for the tribes to use, if they want to have language classes here, or programming. We will have meeting rooms so if the tribes have meetings here in the city with other tribes or businesses we can provide those amenities where they can have a meeting place here. More discounts for tribal members because we feel that special obligation to the tribes. If the tribes want to have their cultural activities, dances, we can make arrangements to have that happen here,” Henry said. “Oklahoma City has a large urban Indian population with almost every tribe in the state having members living in Oklahoma City and members of tribes outside of Oklahoma that live here in Oklahoma City also. We want to be the living room for the tribal community.”
James Pepper Henry, an enrolled member of Kaw Nation, has been involved in The American Indian Center’s development since 2004 when he helped inform the conceptual design. In 2007, as associate director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, he signed the Memorandum of Understanding between the two institutions, which created the possibility of a long-term loan, as well as collaborative programming opportunities.
Henry served as Executive Director of the Gilcrease Museum, where he helped lead the successful $65 million Vision Tax extension campaign for the museum expansion and helped raise $27 million in additional support through the museum’s partnership with The University of Tulsa. Prior to the Gilcrease Museum he served as Director and CEO of the Heard Museum in Phoenix, AZ, increasing museum attendance by 58 percent and memberships by 150 percent. He also served as Executive Director/CEO for a six-year tenure at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Alaska’s premier art, history and science institution, where he oversaw the completion of the museum’s $110 million, 80,000-square-foot expansion. His wealth of experience will greatly benefit the American Indian Center as construction resumes in the fall. In 2010, he oversaw development of The Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, establishing a long-term loan of materials similar to what will be accomplished between The American Indian Cultural Center and Museum and The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, including working with Ralph Appelbaum Associates on both projects.
Henry is a graduate of the University of Oregon and a graduate of the Getty Leadership Institute in Los Angeles, CA. He is a board member of the American Alliance of Museums, a national organization overseeing museum accreditation, and a board member of the Western Museums Association. He serves on the Oklahoma Art in Public Places Oversight Committee and serves as a commissioner on the Greater Tulsa Area Indian Affairs Commission. He also serves as a board member for the Mvskoke Arts Association, a nonprofit organization that advocates for Mvskoke Arts and Artists.