Confidence in Culture

by James McGirk

04/21/2014

The Oklahoma legislature first approved the construction of the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in 1994 to “generate awareness and understanding of the tribes and their relationship to Oklahoma today,” but realization of the facility has been excruciatingly slow. The Native American Educational and Cultural Authority began building the site along the banks of the North Canadian river in April 2006, and spent about $67 million of taxpayer funds (and a further $40 million in private donations) over seven years, building what was supposed to become a museum and cultural center to rival the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.

The project has since stalled, and faces an uncertain future.

Many Americans don’t realize how diverse Native American culture is, which is one way that museums like the AICCM help contemporary artists. When Roy Boney Jr., a Cherokee painter, filmmaker, writer, and graphic novelist, exhibits outside of Oklahoma, “people seem surprised to see a distinct Cherokee visual language,” he said. One “that is part of the southeastern woodlands style. The popular imagination tends to think of the Southwest when talking about Native art. As a Cherokee artist, I hope to tell the story of my experience as a Cherokee growing up in modern Oklahoma with thousands of years of Southeastern-style cultural-artistic traditions to draw from.”

Artist, writer, and poet Karen Coody Cooper sees institutions like the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum as existing in a symbiotic relationship with communities like the Cherokee Nation.

“I believe the local is important to develop and protect,” she says, “because it is an authentic cultural representation, and it in turn feeds into the larger realms of state, national, and international, which are important because that is how understanding of deeper knowledge concerning diversity is created, and the larger bounces back to the local bring protection and growth… It is all symbiotic, the one feeding the other.”

Lisa Rutherford, a Southeastern Indian Artist Association member who works primarily with clay, sees artists as culture bearers. “The art we leave behind is what people will study in the future to learn about us,” she says. “Most people have no idea how much research and study is involved… One area that artists are informed about is symbolism. Non-artists often think they are designs they can use for decorations, but often [these symbols] are spiritually significant, and while we may not understand exactly what they mean, we are aware of which symbols are inappropriate for use in, say, carpet design, wall decoration in a casino, or the walls of a bathroom stall. And that has happened.”

Oklahoma’s rural regions are undergoing a renaissance. On November 2, 2004, voters answered State Question 712 in the affirmative, forming a compact between the State of Oklahoma and the 39 federally recognized, quasi-sovereign Oklahoma Indian tribes.

There are three tiers of gambling (a.k.a. “gaming,” to use the bland, slightly Orwellian industry term of art) mentioned in the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which laid the foundation for what by 2012 had become a $29.2-billion-a-year industry in the United States and a $3.8-billion-a-year industry in the State of Oklahoma. Each level has a correspondingly higher amount of risk to community and thus requires more regulation by the state.

Class I gaming includes church and ceremonial games of chance for minimal prizes and is essentially unregulated; Class II gaming is more intense, and was used to describe a type of gaming that was already legal in Florida and California, namely high-stakes bingo and card games in which players competed against one another instead of the casino (called “banking”). The final form is Class III gaming, which generally includes everything else, but specifically refers to lucrative and extremely addictive electronic slot machines. The 2004 compact let Oklahoma’s tribes introduce Class III gaming at their casinos, so long as they allowed a measure of state supervision and shared some of the profits with the state (6 percent of electronic game revenue over $20 million and 10 percent of the monthly table game take). Over the next 10 years, tribes that were located along major traffic corridors or close to big cities saw huge boosts in revenue.

As a result of all this financial fertilizer, there has been a cultural construction boom in the state, and there are now somewhere between 50 and 70 tribal museums and heritage centers operating in Oklahoma.  

To put the aforementioned $3.8 billion gaming-industry in Oklahoma in perspective, and just how much money sluicing into the state that represents, consider the size of Oklahoma’s economy: It grossed $138.3 billion in 2012, according to the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, of which nearly three-quarters (73 percent) was concentrated in the Oklahoma City, Lawton, and Tulsa metropolitan statistical areas. Now, some gaming revenue does come from Oklahoma’s cities—for example, the gargantuan Hard Rock Casino is located in Catoosa, right outside of Tulsa—but most tribal territory falls beyond the metropolitan areas, and so do the really big casinos. The Chickasaw Nation’s WinStar World, for example, which has the second-largest gaming floor in the entire world, sits just over the border with Texas. Likewise, the Quapaw’s Downstream Casino Resort was built on the northeastern tip of Oklahoma, where it can absorb gamers from Arkansas, Missouri, and Kansas. The Economic Research & Policy Institute at Oklahoma City University estimates that together Oklahoma’s tribes accounted for $10.8 billion of economic activity in 2012; again, a chunk of that does stay in the cities, but suffice it to say the $3.8 billion in Indian gaming revenue represents a hefty slice of the $37.3 billion worth of economic activity that occurs beyond the big three.

It is difficult to estimate exactly how much of that money Oklahoma’s tribes have directly invested into culture over the past 10 years. But, it is a lot. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act mandates that money generated from gaming be used for the benefit of tribe members, which means that once basic health and housing requirements were provided for, Oklahoma’s tribes suddenly had the funds to start preserving and fostering their own cultural sector. Some tribes, such as the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, now direct a specific percentage of capital spending toward the arts, while others lump cultural spending in with other business ventures or education. As a result of all this financial fertilizer, there has been a cultural construction boom in the state, and there are now somewhere between 50 and 70 tribal museums and heritage centers operating in Oklahoma, according to founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and current president of the Autry Center, Richard West Jr.

Indian Country’s museum-building boom parallels another happening beyond the United States. The developing world has gone mad for museums, particularly in the rapidly industrializing BRIC countries (a term coined by a Goldman Sachs analyst to describe the names of four top-performing developing economies: Brazil, Russia, India, and China).

China had only 25 museums when the Communist Party came to power in 1949, according to The Economist, which devoted a recent issue to the museum-building boom. At last count, there were more than 3,866 in the country, and the State Council—the chief administrative authority of the People’s Republic of China—had decided to “upgrade culture to the level of a strategic industry,” inserting it into the next five-year plan for their economy, with museum-building forming a key part of that strategy. But, why? The Economist calls museums symbols of national confidence, places “where a young country can present a national narrative.” This is an attitude echoed by Cherokee Heritage Center executive director Candessa Tehee in Tahlequah.

What the Heritage Center does “is much bigger than the preservation of a material collection,” Tehee said. “It’s much more than documentation; it’s an interpretative experience as well.” She describes how differently Ned Christie’s War (a five-year-long conflict between the Cherokee tribe and the U.S. government) is told. “[To us,] Ned Christie was a Cherokee freedom fighter who was exercising his rights as a citizen. The way they tell it in Fort Smith is very different.”

“The paradigm for defining museums is changing significantly,” said American Indian Cultural Center and Museum director of communications and cultural tourism Shoshana Wasserman. “Museums are no longer viable if their focus is only on collections and research.” She explains how the museum’s Turtle Shell Gallery will work with delegates of Oklahoma’s tribal nations to select objects from the Smithsonian’s National Museum for the American Indian: “Contemporary and historic objects will be intentionally juxtaposed to bear witness to the long continuum of Native culture.” The museum intends to be a part of Native American culture in the state, not just an epitaph for what it once was.

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A few weeks ago, I visited the Crystal Bridges Museum in Northwest Arkansas, which was created by the Walton Family Foundation (i.e. the Walmart dynasty’s foundation). It was a splendid facility, with world-class architecture and what promises to become an impressive collection of contemporary and traditional Western art. Admission was free and the staff eager to educate and inform, including Alice Walton herself, who appeared suddenly in the library, swathed in royal purple, to ask how I was enjoying my visit.

Historically, America’s highbrow culture has been fostered by wealthy philanthropists like the gracious Ms. Walton. Oklahoma is no exception. The crown jewels of our art establishment, the Gilcrease and Philbrook museums, were once private collections and remain non-profit organizations. Crystal Bridges has its place. The Walton family fortune nourished Northwest Arkansas, and so it seems appropriate for Alice Walton’s point of view to be honored. It also seems strange for a single voice to have so much influence over a region’s legacy. That is because a major museum is much more than a revolving collection of artifacts. It is a super-node, the cultural equivalent of a satellite uplink, broadcasting a message into popular culture; hoisting some artists and notables into the public eye and ignoring others; filling archives and directing millions of dollars worth of research and sending scores of trained curators scampering all over the earth. Above all else, a museum tells a story.

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A few weeks ago, I visited the CrysRick West Jr. is a major proponent of museums having an influence on a living culture. When he first opened the doors of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in 2004, West faced a great deal of criticism for focusing on living tribes rather than archeology and anthropology. “In some respects [the NMAI] was the anti-museum,” he says. “It turned the museum paradigm on its head. It wasn’t the temple on the hill. It was about the full-time span of Native communities from the deep past to the present. I saw it as being an international center of Native culture. It rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way. The other major tenet was that Native people were perfectly capable of articulating things about their Native culture. The effort was not to exclude anyone else, [but] to be respectful of other systems of knowledge that sat within communities.”

After forced migrations and destructive attempts to Americanize tribe members, a great deal of Native culture has been lost, which complicates the mission of Native American museums and heritage centers.

“Among the Southern Cheyenne, there was a large internal debate about whether they would ever allow photographs to be taken of the Sun Dance ceremony,” says West, who belongs to the Cheyenne tribe. “In the end we decided that we should, because we were simply losing so many people and information.”

One of the reasons why the National Museum of the American Indian was formed was because of the outcry from tribes after it was revealed that more than 14,000 Native American human remains were held in the Smithsonian Institute’s archives. One of the National Museum of the American Indian’s first duties was to repatriate the remains, which created a difficult situation for the Cheyenne, according to West. “The Cheyenne were not accustomed to reburying people. There was no precedent. A number of religious leaders and the society of chiefs came together and extrapolated how it should be handled. The knowledge base simply wasn’t there, so we had to create something.”

Native American communities have long been accused of making things up, he says, and this is unfair. “There’s this school of anthropology,” West says, “that says the last real Indian died at the beginning of the Gold Rush and advocates this freezing of the culture. I’ve never expected anyone in Euro-American society to dress like George Washington. There’s a dynamism: Nothing stands still, and Native people should be granted the same prerogative.”

Candeesa Tehee, executive director of the Cherokee Heritage Center, has also dealt with questions of authenticity and re-creating culture—particularly with respect to the Cherokee’s ancient villages, the ongoing live re-enactments of Cherokee life during different time periods: Diligwa, which demonstrates pre-colonial life in 1710, and Adams Corner, which represents life in 1890.

“Diligwa predates Sequoyan writing systems,” says Tehee, “but we do have missionary accounts and archeological research, and then there are also elements such as oral history that have been retained, such as WPA interviews, although of course those don’t reach quite as far back… So [Diligwa] is our best approximation from an amalgamation of sources and what is culturally appropriate in our communities now.” She explains what she means, “The Cherokee word for lifeways means much more than just way of life: It accounts for ways of being and relating to one another and taking care of one another… it seems to derive from an essence of Cherokee-ness that is not only present in our ceremonial grounds but also in our churches and the way our community lives and relates to one another.”

Recognizing this essence seems to help ground Tehee’s work at the Heritage Center. Fixing the center within the Cherokee community and allowing the Center to use their exhibition space are ways to not only preserve and curate stories about their past, but also reflect on the present and guide the community into the future.

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The Native American Educational and Cultural Authority exhausted its funds in 2012 and was all set for another round of construction funding last year when an F5 tornado hit Moore, Oklahoma, and ripped apart what was once a nice south Oklahoma City suburb. Reconstructing Moore’s crippled infrastructure took precedence and construction of the museum sputtered out.

Sales tax revenue is expected to decline this year. The senate’s appropriations committee has proposed tapping the state’s unclaimed property fund to pay for the project, but even so, in the short-term, public finance is a zero-sum game, and the museum would divert money from other worthy projects, not least of which is a much-needed renovation of the Capitol itself, whose condition has been a national disgrace for at least a century. (Also on the agenda: the proposed OKPOP Museum, which would be run by the Oklahoma Historical Society, and would slot nicely into the Brady Arts District to celebrate Oklahoma’s place in pop culture.)

That said, the museum could represent an enormous opportunity for the state: City planners call it the Bilbao Effect, after the dramatic transformation that took place when the Guggenheim decided to build an enormous, swirly titanium art museum in a moribund Spanish regional capital. The site is strategically located between I-35 and I-44 and could attract hordes of tourists and eventually generate billions of dollars for the region. But thinking about the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum as if it were a factory tile in a game of SimCity is shortsighted.

On March 3, beneath the crumbling dome of the Oklahoma State Capitol, the legislature began debating whether to give a final infusion of cash to complete the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum. The Senate approved dedicating $40 million from the Unclaimed Property Fund to the project, but the house hasn’t yet voted on the proposal. Whether or not the museum ultimately receives the funding it needs from the state, it underscores an exciting transformation that is already underway. Oklahoma’s 39 tribes are beginning to build the cultural machinery to tell the world their stories, and in the process deciding which stories to tell and who gets to tell them.

 


Originally published in This Land Vol. 5, Issue 6, March 15, 2014.