Connecting with Native American Culture
Explore Oklahoma’s vast Native American museums and their rich history
Chickasaw Cultural Center | Photos by Elaine Warner
Oklahoma is second in the nation in the number of recognized Native American tribes by state. But our Native American museums are first class. A visit to one—or more—makes for a fun and educational summer outing.
Cherokee Heritage Center
Probably the most well-known of the Native American museums in Oklahoma, the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah has been around for over half-a-century. But don’t expect a crusty, dusty museum. The Center, on 44 acres, encompasses the Trail of Tears exhibit and two outdoor living history areas. The most dramatic feature of the Trail of Tears display is a collection of life-sized figures illustrating the hardship of the Trail. Other exhibits tell the story of the lead-up to Removal, the Removal, the end of the Trail and start of life in Oklahoma.
Diligwa represents a Cherokee community in the early 1700s. Guided tours provide information supplemented by interpreters in native dress who demonstrate skills and crafts. Adams Corner recreates a late 1890s-era Cherokee town. Visitors can see a general store, church, school, a smokehouse and three representative dwellings.
While in the area, visit these other Cherokee sites: Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum, Cherokee National Prison Museum and Hunter’s Home, Oklahoma’s only remaining antebellum plantation.
Chickasaw Cultural Center
The Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur makes use of the latest technology to tell the story of the Chickasaw Nation. After an introductory film, the screen rises and visitors are invited into the Spirit Forest where, using audio and light effects, ancient stories are told. Other exhibits describe the history of the people and their customs and explore the relationship between the Chickasaws, European explorers and the United States government. Interactive language features introduce the Chickasaw language. Live demonstrations, a recreated traditional village, and a theatre screening films about and/or produced by Chickasaws add to the experience.
For a traditional treat, try the Chickasaw Special at Aaimpa’ Café. It includes an Indian taco (fry bread topped with ground beef or bison, beans, lettuce, tomato, onion and cheese), pishofa (cracked pearl hominy cooked with pork—tastes like chunky grits) and grape dumplings (pastry pieces in a grape sauce)
For a bonus, travel on to Tishomingo to visit the Chickasaw Council House and Museum.
Seminole Nation Museum
Head for Wewoka to visit this little gem of a museum. Displays offer just the right balance of graphics and artifacts and concisely tell the story of the Seminole Nation from a small collection of southeastern tribes through Removal to today’s Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.
Exhibits touch on history, culture, education, religion, crafts, medicine and pivotal events and figures throughout the Seminole story. One of the most important artifacts is a bandolier created by the late master beader Damian Jay McGirt. Executive Director Richard Ellwanger explains, “This piece embodies traditional culture as well as contemporary artistic craftsmanship.” Thousands of tiny beads are incorporated in traditional Seminole designs. An accompanying graphic describes bandoliers as “the most impressive item of Seminole Indian adornment….objects of great prestige among tribal members.”
Seminoles are known for their beautiful patchwork creations. Another exhibit gives a bit of background on the craft along with several colorful examples.
In addition to art in the museum portion of the building, an art gallery showcases outstanding works by Seminole artists. Best known is Enoch Kelly Haney, whose painting “The Offering” was commissioned by the museum. A new exhibit, “Altars of Reconciliation,” opens August 1. The melding of Native American culture and Christianity is interpreted though the experiences and artworks of three artists: Bobby Martin, Erin Shaw and Tony Tiger.
Creek Nation Council House
In Okmulgee, the Creek Nation Council House is more an encompassing artifact than a museum. The 1878 Council House reopened last November following a $2 million renovation.
The Creeks, more accurately known as Muscogee, named Okmulgee after their ancestral homeland, Ocmulgee, near Macon, Georgia.
The building has had a patchy history, at one time being owned by the city of Okmulgee. When the city considered demolishing the building for the construction of a hotel, Will Rogers was quoted, saying, “Anybody can have a hotel but only Okmulgee can have the Creek Council House.”
East Central Electric Cooperative member and civic activist Rusty Milroy says, “The Creek Nation Council House is the heart of Okmulgee. It symbolizes all we are in Oklahoma as a people. We’ve been able to preserve that.”
Inside the building, graphics explain the original purpose of each room. History, tribal organization, laws and financial practices are described in detail on numerous panels. Worn, original stair treads bring present guests in touch with the past.
Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center
The Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center in Shawnee is a beautiful example of contemporary museum design. Exhibits are carefully chosen and displayed and include a smooth blending of traditional tribal stories and historic events.
Striking illustrations, created by museum staff members and members of the Nation, introduce visitors to a thousand-year-old prophecy story predicting the future of the tribe. Colorful displays illustrate pre-Removal life of the people. Favorite items include a replica of a Potawatomi canoe and a traditional bark wigwam.
A particularly touching exhibit consists of 86 pairs of moccasins made by members of the Potawatomi community. Each pair represents 10 individuals who were force-marched from their Indiana homes to Kansas in 1838—a trek referred to as the Trail of Death. In 1867 part of the group was forced to move to Oklahoma. This is the group known as the Citizen Band Potawatomi Nation.
The museum covers a lot of Potawatomi and American history. To do justice to the depth of material presented, plan on spending several hours.
A number of other tribes have museums dedicated to their cultures: the Southern Plains Indian Museum and the Five Civilized Tribes Museum deal with multiple tribes; larger institutions—the Oklahoma History Center, Gilcrease Museum and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum—have extensive displays on Native American art and history.