and 23 Years Later: American Indian Cultural Center and Museum will
showcase 39 tribes in Oklahoma
Photograph looking South - The American Indian Cultural Center
and Museum can now resume construction after 23 years of red
tape. (courtesy of The American Indian Cultural Center and
At the junction of three major interstates in Oklahoma City
sits the skeletal ribs of what is to be the American Indian Cultural
Center and Museum. It has been a dormant site for years due to a
lack of funding and an inability to reach a consensus between tribes
and the state. That squabble has finally, after 23 years, been resolved
and the museum will now see construction crews returning to finish
The American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, which will introduce
visitors to the 39 tribes of the Oklahoma starting in 2021, is taking
shape at what new CEO James Pepper Henry calls "the crossroads,
the intersection of America." Located at the confluence of Interstate
35, 40 and 44, Pepper Henry says the location makes it easy for
people to get off the highway and experience the story of Oklahoma's
39 tribal communities.
Pepper Henry says the cultural center was conceived in 1994,
when the Oklahoma Legislature created the Native American Cultural
and Educational Authority, charged with building the center as a
A change in legislative leadership stopped the state funding
and construction on the 162,000-square-foot center in 2012.
"Some conservative members felt this was some sort of reparations
to the tribe and that tribes should pay for it. I'm happy to say
that consensus has been reached," said Pepper Henry. "The state
agreed to finish its obligation toward the project, and private
citizens and tribes have stepped up to the plate with matching funds."
All tribes, including the Chickasaw Nation have contributed
to the effort and to date, $40 million has been contributed to match
the state's outlay. After the cultural center opens in 2021, Oklahoma
City will take ownership, with the American Indian Cultural Foundation,
a private nonprofit, managing the center. "It's a public-private
partnership," says Pepper Henry, who's the foundation's first hire.
The American Indian Cultural Center & Museum will include
a 125,000 square foot museum on a 300-acre site located on river
trust property donated by the City of Oklahoma City.
Some of the attractions will include a massive Central Promontory
Mound, which is 1.7 billion pounds of red earth piled 90 feet high
and reflects the Spiral Mound and Cahokia Mound culture along the
Mississippi Valley. "We wanted to pay homage to the great civilizations
of this part of the country by creating this mound structure. Visitors
will be able to walk up the mound, which represents life's journey,
to the crest." said Pepper Henry.
Several galleries will tell the story of both the indigenous
peoples of Oklahoma and those who journeyed there through removal
policies. The 17,000-square-foot signature gallery will provide
an historical overview of Oklahoma from pre-contact to the Diaspora,
relocation, and tribes today.
"Most tribes in Oklahoma came here from somewhere else, through
treaty or coercion. We want to talk about the original territories
of those tribes and the importance of place to the tribes before
removal, and how Oklahoma lands became sacred to these tribes after
The gallery will also make use of technology to manage the massive
volume of information for 39 distinct tribes. Special smart cards
can be encoded with a visitor's preference. For example, if she
is interested in the Cherokee story, the smart card will direct
her to Cherokee materials. The next visitor may wish to view Osage
history, and his smart card will allow him to home in on one of
the state's indigenous peoples.
In addition to permanent and changing exhibitions, the center
will have a robust gift shop modeled after the Heard Museum's shop,
a café featuring indigenous foods; meeting spaces, and spaces
for private ceremonies and the cultural park.
No archaeological items will be accepted. "We're not interested
in collecting precontact items, particularly items that come from
graves," says Pepper Henry.
The cultural center is meant to serve as the appetizer for visitors
hungry for details about tribes. The hope is that, once they have
sampled the rich cultures, they will journey to tribal museums,
staying longer and spending tourism dollars in state, Pepper Henry
"I want this to be the pinnacle of my career as a museum professional,"
says Pepper Henry, an enrolled member of the Kaw Nation and citizen
of the Muscogee Creek Nation, whose career in the museum field spans
more than 30 years. "It has so much personal meaning for me. I want
my children and grandchildren to be have this as a resource. I want
this to be a legacy."
However, Pepper Henry also feels keenly the need to get the
job doneand soon. "I feel a sense of urgency; some of the
people who have been involved with this project over the past two
decades are elders," he says. "'Jim, I'm going to stay alive as
long as I can so I can see this cultural center open,'" they tell
"I told them, I'm going to get this cultural center open for