First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City opens

OKLAHOMA CITY – The long-awaited First Americans Museum held its grand opening on Sept 18-19 in Oklahoma City.

According to a 2019 Associated Press article, “Construction on the 173,000-square-foot facility began in 2006 but was delayed for years after the project ran out of money and the (state) Legislature refused to allocate more funds. An agreement was ultimately reached in 2016 between the city, state and tribal nations to finish construction.”

FAM Director and CEO James Pepper Henry said the FAM’s architecture and main feature is a glass and steel half dome modeled after a Wichita grass lodge.

“We wanted to honor the original Indigenous peoples of this land, the Wichita and the Caddo,” he said. “As you know all the other tribes come from some other place. We are on what is and always was Caddo and Wichita land, and so this glass structure honors them.” 

He said the museum site is two intersecting circles, and part of one circle is a large mound made from 500,000 cubic yards of earth to “honor the great civilizations that were here before us.”

“This mound honors our ancestors throughout North America, and inside that mound we have a solstice tunnel, which marks the shortest day of the year,” Pepper Henry said. “The sun will set perfectly in that tunnel and has a beautiful light that shines through it. Then in the summertime, the sun will set at the apex of the mound, and that’s the longest day of the year, so the whole site is a giant cosmological clock. We can tell the time of the year by where the sun sets on the mound.” 

He said patrons are greeted by an art piece called “Touch to Above” by Cherokee artists Bill and Demos Glass.

“That’s an incredible piece, and that’s what welcomes our visitors here to the museum,” Pepper Henry said. “That open hand is a symbol of friendship, and so that’s the first thing the visitors see when they come up…”

Inside, along with the glass half dome, visitors see two exhibit galleries, a theater and museum store.

FAM Collections Manager Hallie Winter said the opening event was a culmination of a 30-year effort even though she began working at the FAM in 2018 on its curatorial team.

“At that time, we started developing our exhibitions,” Winter said. “We got a loan from the National Museum of the American Indian to bring over 100 objects home to Oklahoma from Washington, D.C. They were first collected here in Oklahoma in the early 1900s…this is very special because they’re now coming home for the very first time.”

She said the objects have never been on exhibition, having been stored for more than 100 years. “It’s really special to have them come back home.”

The museum’s collection is located in two exhibition halls. 

“We have a Tribal Nations Gallery, which tells the collective history of the 39 tribes of Oklahoma,” Winter said. “Then upstairs in the mezzanine gallery where the Smithsonian loan is, we tried to get at least three objects from each tribe so everyone can be represented.”

Contrary to most museums, she said there are gallery pieces meant to be used during special events, gatherings and celebrations.

“We want to break the mold as to what a museum is,” she said. “We use our objects today, and we want to reflect that through our exhibitions.”

Also on site is a restaurant serving tribal cuisines instead of “stereotypical” foods.

“We have an incredible restaurant featuring recipes of the 39 tribal nations,” Pepper Henry said. “We’re talking about traditional recipes and not the Indian tacos and fry bread that people think is traditional Native food. We’re having real traditional Native foods, and we’re sourcing our foods as best we can from the different tribes here in Oklahoma.”

He said the museum store features art and other pieces made by tribal citizens.

“If you’re looking for authentic, Native-made items, this is the place to come and it supports our Native are economy here in Oklahoma.” he said.

The store also sells books by Native authors as well as FAM-branded merchandise.

The museum is at 659 First Americans Blvd. For information, go to famok.org or call 405-594-2100.