Who do you think of when you hear the term “First American?” Are you considering the undocumented Europeans that arrived a few hundred years ago or the original inhabitants of this land and all of the “Americas?” I knew I wanted to include indigenous-focused activities in my Oklahoma itinerary and I was lucky to visit after the First Americans Museum or FAM opened.
FAM is extraordinary and unlike any museum I’ve visited. I learned so much about the First Americans who live in Oklahoma, what their culture looks like today, and how they are reclaiming their past.
Did you know Oklahomas has the largest number of First Americans nations in a single state? There are 39! I was surprised to see the names of the nations and their highway exits as I drove from Oklahoma City to Tulsa. Each nation is sovereign and controls its own destiny. I took some time to explore one of the tribes but that’s a story I’ll share in another post.
FAM is experienced through sight, sound, and touch. The tours are self-guided with an option to participate in a docent-led walk-in tour each day at 1 p.m. I had to opt-out of the walk-in tour so I could enjoy lunch at FAM’s Thirty Nine restaurant.
My first stop at the museum was the Origins Theater where a film plays that explains the creation of the Universe from the culture of four tribes. Each had their own origin story and they were beautiful, unique, yet alike.
FAM is filled with artifacts and documents its struggle to have stolen, “found”, and “borrowed” sacred objects (including human remains) returned to their tribes. In 1909 Mark Harrington wrote his reasons were to “benefit the Indians in two ways, first by giving them good prices for their old relics, and second by getting the old things, which tend to make them keep up the old ways, out of their hands.”
There is an excellent Code Switch podcast show called Skeletons in the closet, revisited that details that struggle between the Smithsonian and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The University of Alabama and its over-eleven-thousand artifacts and remains is in a similar struggle with the Muscogee Nation. How are we two decades into the the 21st century and this is still a struggle for First Americans?
The history of America’s land theft, the Trail of Tears, and all of the legislation designed to destroy Native People is not glossed over. It’s addressed head on with references to the 1903 Supreme Court decision in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock which decided Congress could alter any treaty negations without tribal consent. And before it the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
Y’all, America really tried to destroy all indigenous tribes and I grieved for what they went through. But I remembered my lessons from Vanessa Adams-Harris and I looked at how these resilient people refused to die. FAM is not a mausoleum, it’s also full of life and hope. It tells stories of courage and how Native People are the largest group of service people in the military
FAM offers a virtual ride to a powwow and you get to observe the celebrations, pride, and joys of participating tribes. There is a concerted effort to bring their history into the present, honor their ancestors, and to continue to create and live their authentic native lives. It was exactly what I needed to see, their success despite everything that was taken from them and everything that was lost. I left with a heart full of joy and a plan to return to Oklahoma and visit more of the nations.
FAM is located at 659 First Americans Blvd., Oklahoma City, OK 73129 and timed-entry tickets can be purchased Wednesday through Monday here.
FAM was another discovery I made on my wonderful visit to Oklahoma City and should be added to your travel plans. Have you visited Oklahoma City? What should I do when I return?