First Americans Museum honors tribal traditions

First Americans Museum

The 175,000-square-foot structure expounds on the rich history and challenging journey for the 39 tribes that call Oklahoma home today.

As the sun rises over the native-inspired earthen mound and glistens on the glass panes of the Hall of The People, you can almost hear ancient voices speaking through the unique architecture of the First Americans Museum near Oklahoma City. The 175,000-square-foot structure, which recently opened to the public, expounds on the rich history and challenging journey for the 39 tribes that call Oklahoma home today. Much like the people it honors, the building itself faced a long journey before becoming a reality.

In the mid-1990s, state legislators set up a committee to explore the museum’s creation. The measure passed but without funding. This would be a reoccurring theme. Over the next three decades, the project was funded and then defunded, making slow progress toward completion. However, the project team never lost sight of the need to create a museum that would share the collective story of Oklahoma’s diverse Native American population.

“It’s almost like this project had to go through the same historical trauma that our tribes did,” said Shoshana Wasserman, the deputy director of the museum. A journey, she notes, that made the recent grand opening even more rewarding. “It was very emotional for that first event. The tribal leaders showed a sense of pride seeing how each of their people groups was well-represented in a story carefully woven together. It was a powerful moment.”

“It’s almost like this project had to go through the same historical trauma that our tribes did,” said Shoshana Wasserman, deputy director of the museum.

The museum’s design and architectural elements play a key role in bringing this history to life.  Los Angeles-based architects Scott Johnson, FAIA, and William Fain, FAIA, were engaged in the project from the very beginning with local firm Hornbeek Blatt.

“At the outset, we asked ourselves if it was even possible to understand the magnitude of their journeys well enough that tribal peoples could come to see themselves here in a place of their own stories. Nevertheless, the familiar mission of the architect is to constantly ask questions and to listen for the cues which lead to form,” said Scott Johnson, partner at Johnson Fain.

The architectural team and museum leaders spent years meeting with tribal elders and other cultural leaders to design a space reflective of the native community. For example, the completed grounds feature a large earthen mound aligned with the cardinal directions (north, south, east, west). This element ties the buildings to nature, the rising of the sun, and the celebration of events like the solstice. Native cultures would locate homes, sacred places, and sometimes whole cities on top of these mounds.

“The need to properly understand the mindset of native people and to translate native beliefs into representative landscapes, building and exhibit designs was always front and center. Because of open workshop exchanges, we believed that tribal meaning and iconography would cross over and integrate in new ways between normally separate design disciplines,” said William Fain, partner Johnson Fain.

“As the local partner, we were tasked with guarding the intent of the original design so that it was executed to be respectful of these stories. We all wanted to create a campus that supported this important narrative and functioned as a worthy canvas for the project,” said Anthony Blatt, principal at Hornbeek Blatt.

An example of the architects’ vision meeting history is evident when you view the museum’s Hall of the People -- a completely glass-enclosed structure at the entrance inspired by the look of a Wichita grass lodge. Inside the soaring room of the hall stand ten columns. Wasserman said these columns represent the ten miles a day that tribes were forced to travel during the time of removal when the U.S. forced many Native Americans to relocate to Oklahoma throughout the 1800s.

The museum’s Hall of the People is inspired by the look of a Wichita grass lodge.

“There are so many stories embedded into the actual architecture,” said Wasserman. “It acknowledges the tribal peoples who have always called Oklahoma home, the Native Americans who were removed from their traditional lands and perished along the way, and people like my ancestors who were removed and resettled here. It’s rooting something contemporary in the ancient.”

The site for the museum is also a story about sustainability and reclamation. The 40-acre campus was built on Oklahoma City’s first oilfield, which at one time supported 57 producing wells. This required extensive remediation. In addition, the location had become a dumping ground for used tires. During cleanup, the team removed nearly 7,000 discarded tires. Today, the former brownfield site is reconnected to the earth as a place of remembrance and education.

You can find out more or plan a visit to the museum at https://famok.org/

Image credits

First Americans Museum

First Americans Museum

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