First Americans Museum Opens In Oklahoma City Telling 39 Stories Simultaneously
By Chadd Scott
Exterior main entrance at First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City, OK
When the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma opened on September 18, 2021, it did so welcoming all. It welcomes Native Americans as family. It welcomes non-natives as guests. Both warmly, but there is a difference.
Make no mistake, non-native visitors to the museum are guests. The invitation to explore is open, but they are not in charge. They are not telling the story. It’s not their space.
That’s a dramatic change from the colonial history of institutional storytelling in America where for over 100 years white people have been telling the Native American story in museums.
The First Americans Museum represents the first time Native Americans will be telling the Native American story on this scale without the overbearing presence of non-native curators, board members, or directors. This is the actual story of Oklahoma’s Native population–all 39 tribes who now call it home, the 31 who were relocated here from points across America and the eight either indigenous to the area or having a historical connection to it–as told by those who lived it.
Garis Gallery of the American West at Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
The museum shares a story impossibly large to tell in one space at one time by making those stories small and personal, relating them to individual experiences representative of thousands.
This is not the ethnographic museum of natural history from your grade school field trips with lifeless, mannequin-filled dioramas of “Indians” in teepees shooting buffalo from horseback with bow and arrow. The First Americans Museum combines cutting edge technology with a millennium’s old story continuing today. Unlike those natural history museums in which Native history ends with removal and relocation in the 1800s–the traditionally colonial, Euro-centric perspective–at FAM, Native culture remains as vibrant and deserving of attention today as it ever has.
In all of those ways, FAM stands not merely as a new museum building, but as a new museum concept. Long overdue.
Start at the Beginning
Oklahoma was Indian Territory prior to its statehood in 1907. The state’s name comes from two Choctaw words “Okla” and “Homma” meaning Red People. This was the Trail of Tears’ terminus and where land–over 40 million acres–was supposed to be occupied by Native people forever without the interference of whites. That’s what the treaty said. One of hundreds which would be broken by the United States government.
FAM, however, doesn’t dwell on trauma. It deftly balances the horrors Native people have faced at the hands of white people, with ancestral Native history, contemporary Native history, and the achievements and glories of the 39 tribes.
Visitors learn about the Trail of Tears, relocation, genocide, Indian boarding schools, allotment–the diving up of communally held Indian land in Oklahoma by the federal government into individual parcels to further weaken the tribes’ power–and also tribal ingenuity, trade, powwows, sports heroes and resilience.
FAM’s storytelling intentionally begins with origins.
“The reason that we started everything with our origin stories is because they lay out instructions,” Leslie Halfmoon (Caddo/Deleware/Choctaw), FAM’s Curatorial Specialist, told Forbes.com. “Here's how you get through everything. Here's all you need. These are your sacred elements; this is your medicine. This is how you treat each other. These are these values you lean into during tough times.”
FAM’s Origins Theater envelopes visitors into four separate animated origin stories.