Reflection on First Americans Museum Opening

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A Chickasaw Nation delegation demonstrates a stomp dance in the eastern FAM courtyard.

“It’s a museum, but it’s for regular Indians.” I overheard that at the opening of the First Americans Museum (FAM) in Oklahoma City.

Perhaps among all the praise heaped on the museum during its opening weekend of Sept. 18 and 19, that offhand statement suggests FAM is succeeding at its mission. FAM represents the first-person history of Oklahoma’s Indigenous peoples and provides a place for that history to continue being made.

On Saturday, Sept. 18, hundreds of masked guests with timed-entry tickets were the first to experience exhibitions, demonstrations, performances, and more on the vast FAM grounds. The weekend began with a morning procession representing all of Oklahoma’s Indigenous nations.

Sunday evening it ended with a rare public exhibition by the Fort Sill Apache Gaan, or Mountain Spirit, Dancers in the courtyard.

Within FAM’s encircling earthwork, the distinct songs, fashions, and languages of Oklahoma’s 39 Indigenous nations — the 38 federally recognized tribes and the Yuchi — joined together in celebration. Tragic histories may have brought most of us to Oklahoma. More recent history kept us apart for over a year. But artists, performers, volunteers, and visitors agreed that the FAM opening was a powerful experience.

A Vision Realized

FAM Store

The FAM Store is stocked with items from Native artists and vendors from Oklahoma and across the nation. Kenneth Johnson–designed canoe paddle in the foreground.

Chickasaw composer and pianist J. Cruise Berry composed music for several films by Citizen Potawatomi filmmaker Nicole Emmons, which screened during the weekend.

“I got a little emotional at the opening,” says Berry. “I do a lot of trail running, and I’ve been driving by here for years. Rowing on the river, I would see it off in the distance, and I felt a strong sense of pride, getting to share work here, on my homefront, among friends, peers, and fellow tribal citizens, meeting all of these other artists. It’s been sobering but also affirming and a moment of humility.”

Berry continues, “There’s a line in the play Shadowland about C.S. Lewis that says, ‘We read to know that we’re not alone,’ and I find a lot of solace and comfort in that. We also create to know that we’re not alone. We act as mirrors to the Creator and one another. Art is intrinsically empathetic. It’s been wonderful to be part of this.”

FAM volunteer Pamela Watkins (Choctaw Nation) agreed that it is exciting to see the museum open at last.

“About 30 years ago, I had the first brochure that said they were going to be building the museum,” Watkins says. “I found that brochure not too long ago, and I said, ‘Man, I’ve had that brochure for so long, and it’s finally here.’ It’s exciting. We’re all running into a bunch of friends we haven’t seen in a while. Everybody here is having a good time.”

Maggie Boyett

Shawnee/Kiowa/Peoria dancer Maggie Boyett performs during FAM opening weekend.

Positive Atmosphere

Chickasaw composer Jerod  Tate, who presented an original composition performed by Oklahoma City’s CRUZ Quartet, agreed.

“The energy is high, and optimism is everywhere,” Tate says. “It’s an unusually positive atmosphere. The whole vibe is so beautiful and happy. This is a place where everybody can be themselves, and maybe that’s why everybody is so happy. We are being entirely, authentically ourselves as modern Native people.”

Junior Miss Sac and Fox Nation Breanna Butler, who walked with her nation’s delegation in the procession, summed up the feelings of many opening weekend visitors, saying of the museum. “I like it. I think it’s very beautiful.”

First Americans Museum, located at 659 First Americans Boulevard, is now open with regular operating hours and a full schedule of programming. The museum includes a full-service restaurant and a grab-and-go café, both highlighting Indigenous cuisine.

To find out more, visit the museum’s website at www.famok.org.

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