Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Let's go to Oklahoma. Originally, this land belonged to native tribes, including the Comanche, the Apache, the Osage, and the Wichita Nations. Then, in the 1830s, the federal government under President Andrew Jackson forced five tribes from the Southeastern United States to move thousands of miles away, a deadly journey known as The Trail of Tears.
Much of this land was then taken by white settlers in the following decades. All of that served to lead up to US statehood for Oklahoma in 1907. Today, despite the violence perpetrated by the US government and settlers against the tribes of Oklahoma, native culture continues to thrive. On Saturday, the 39 tribes currently based in Oklahoma are finally able to open a museum worthy of their legacy.
Dr. Henrietta Mann: Today, the First Americans museum stands as an enduring monument to the persistence and adaptability of those who have lived the longest upon this land called Oklahoma.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was Dr. Henrietta Mann, a scholar of Native American Studies and an enrolled member of the Cheyenne Arapaho Tribes, speaking at the opening of the ceremony for the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City. Joining me now is Dr. Heather Ahtone, senior curator for the First Americans Museum and a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. Dr. Ahtone great to have you here.
Dr. Heather Ahtone: Thank you for having me. I feel very privileged to get to speak to your audiences.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This museum was decades in the making, how are you feeling now that it is open to the public?
Dr. Heather Ahtone: I genuinely believe that the ancestors have been holding this in their time and helping us to get ready because we couldn't be what we are today. We couldn't have been this 10 years ago, we couldn't have been this 20 years ago, and so it's the right time, and it's the right time for the world to come and see what we've done here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why couldn't you have been this 10 years ago, or 20?
Dr. Heather Ahtone: Well from the curatorial perspective, I might just add that there are technology that we've been able to take advantage of in the exhibitions that didn't exist 10 years ago. We've really tried to be quite aggressive in thinking that while we're building a museum that helps to channel the voices of our ancestors that we're building a museum for the future. A museum that will benefit not only future generations but one that children and young people would be excited to come see now. We've got 30 media projects that are in the galleries that just the technology for them did not exist. We're just really excited for people to come and see what we've been able to do.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Give me an example of one of your favorite exhibits. I know, at the moment, it's like saying which one is your favorite child but choose one that in particular, the public might be excited to come to see.
Dr. Heather Ahtone: In the south wing, we've built two inaugural exhibitions. On the main floor, we have Oklahoma, which is in our tribal nations gallery, where we speak to the collective history of the 67 tribes that were removed into Oklahoma, and the 39 that remain today, and how these tribes were unique, diverse, rich, cultural environments, and families and groups before any kind of European contact. In fact, you asked what was exciting about that.
One of the things where we really push the boundaries for what our museum can do is that we worked with four tribes. As you enter that gallery, you walk through a theater that is playing very small snippets of creation stories that four of the tribes helped us to develop and cultivate for the audiences. We wrote the gallery labels in both galleries in a first-person, indigenous voice. In order for audiences to understand what is different about an indigenous perspective versus any other, we needed to help audiences understand how we see ourselves within the world and how we see ourselves fitting to the natural order that the creator made for us.
Once you come out of that, you go into a chronological section where we look at the diversity of the events that shifted our world and congested us into this space. Just as a good comparison for people who are not familiar with Oklahoma, we have 39 tribes here, and our tribes come from the Pacific to the Atlantic and from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes. There are 39 tribes and that's not incomparable to the 44 tribes in Europe.
If you took the 44 tribes in Europe and congested them into a landscape the size of Great Britain, not even the whole of the UK, but just that one island, that would be comparable to what happened here in Oklahoma in this landscape about two centuries ago and what our tribes have done to survive that, to resist cultural assimilation and the really vibrant culture that lives here now. When I say culture, I don't just mean dances and food but the really diverse economic impacts that our tribes have over a quarter of all Native Americans are tribally affiliated in tribes in Oklahoma.
Our second exhibition is WINIKO: Life of an Object, Selections from the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. In this exhibition, our museum staff and I co-curated this with Welana Queton who's a member of the Osage Nation, and also Muscogee Creek and Cherokee. She had been on this project a little longer than I had and had been able to identify and become familiar with the objects that represented our 39 tribes. She and I created a framework through which we could make selections. We then consulted back with the tribes to see if these would be appropriate to represent them out of the national collection.
For many other tribes, for most of the tribes, they were acceptable and they were actually quite proud and happy to have these objects returned to Oklahoma, where the majority of them were collected between 1908 and 1914 but there were tribes that actually refuse to use the objects from the National collection. We cooperated with those tribes to identify alternates because, of course, we still wanted the tribes represented and so for the alternates, we did a range of loans from the tribal museums or tribal collections or commissions directly to their community members.
For those objects that came back from the Smithsonian to Oklahoma, we have worked with the National Museum of the American Indian who's been a fantastic partner to conserve them and stabilize them for travel and for a long-term exhibition. Then for nine of them through Welana's research in the archival notes from the collector, she was able to identify the descendants of nine of the families, and we've been able to reunite those families with those objects. I consider this probably the height of the most critical point that our museum might take, the path our museum might take over what another museum might do. It's not simply about putting those objects on exhibition, because really, anybody can do that, but for us to be able to reconnect these objects with their families, to me, that's the profound difference of indigenous curators working in the field.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you talk a bit more about the tensions for a public historian for a museum. Maybe they aren't tensions, the way that you reconcile the observation of outsiders those to whom these objects do not belong where there is not this either familial or tribal or sacred connection on these audiences versus that capacity, as you just said, to return these to families and communities where they do have this particular meaning. What are the multiple goals of the museum?
Dr. Heather Ahtone: Well, thank you. That's a great question because our museum really was founded with the intention of telling the story of our tribes, and uniquely so from a native perspective. You've asked earlier, what are some of the things that have changed that make now the right time, and I would say that one of the biggest advances has been the capacity for there to be a Native American tribal member who can be experienced leader for our institution so James Pepper Henry, who's a citizen of the Kaw Nation also descended from the Muscogee Creek Nation. He's actually currently vice-chair of his tribe, as he's serving there and serving this museum.
Equally so, 12 years ago, when I started curating at the University of Oklahoma, I was one of only three Native Americans curating in a non-tribal or non-federal museum. The field has expanded and we were able to build an entirely native curatorial team to tell a story in a manner that is both bold and aggressive, and that we didn't shy away from the difficult components of our stories, but also absolutely an act of deep respect and responsibility for telling those stories that our ancestors would never have been able to have the opportunity of a museum where they would be seen as an authority.
It may be the greatest honor of my career, but it was also a great burden and figuring out how we could represent 39 tribes. Our curatorial team of 11 was all tribal citizens. Really, we had to dig deep in order to be able to represent stories for tribes, who were not represented by a member on the curatorial team, and especially those smaller tribes for whom there's a real dearth in the scholarship.
We're really pleased with what we've been able to do. One of the tasks I've carried for the last couple of weeks, as we've been preparing to open, we actually prepare the galleries in advance to give us enough time to start taking tribal leaders through the galleries and give them a chance to see what we've done and letting them tell us where they would like things to be improved. Not just letting them, but asking them, what would you like to do? Because we're going to be here for 100 years. This is only just the beginning, and we've got to build the relationships upon which we can rely to become an institution that is really deserving of the name of First Americans Museum.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dr. Heather Ahtone, thank you for taking on this burden and this honor with such respect and reciprocity. Dr. Ahtone is the senior curator for the First Americans Museum and a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. Dr. Ahtone, thanks so much.
Dr. Heather Ahtone: Thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity.
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