In September 2023, the Native Arts & Cultures Board of Directors and staff members were treated to a tour of the newly completed First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
James Pepper Henry (Kaw Nation), Executive Director of First Americans Museum, led the NACF Board and staff on a fascinating behind-the-scenes experience into the thoughtfulness in which many elements of the museum were constructed.
Starting with the incredible gift shop, James explained how incorporating Oklahoma artists was the focus of merchandising the gift shop. From the entryway and gift shop the group toured the Five Moons theater, then the restaurant and many other cutting-edge features of the new museum.
NACF Board member Elise Paschen (Osage) was excited to see that the museum’s theater is named The Five Moons Theater after Oklahoma’s “Five Moons,” which are the five Native American ballerinas from Oklahoma. Two of the five moons are Elise’s mother Maria Tallchief and her aunt Marjorie Tallchief.
Ballerina Maria Tallchief (1925-2013, Osage) is now being celebrated by the U. S. Mint in not just one, but two new coins. Maria is an honoree in the American Women Quarter series, released into circulation in October of 2023. In addition, Maria and her sister Marjorie are featured on the 2023 Native American $1 coin.
Maria Tallchief appears on the quarter in a fully extended leap, wearing the costume from her first Firebird performances in 1949. Her Osage name, Wa-Xthe-Thoṉba, translates to “Two Standards” and is on the other side of the quarter in Osage writing.
As the group was touring the space, they happened upon Dr. Henrietta Mann (Southern Cheyenne), who was visiting the museum at the same time. Dr. Mann is an academic and activist. She was one of the designers of the Native American studies programs at University of California, Berkeley, the University of Montana and Haskell Indian Nations University. In March of 2023 she was presented with a 2021 National Humanities Medal by President Joe Biden at the White House. It was a thrill to see her at the museum.
Upon entering the exhibit space, one of the first sections you see is the Origins Theater. The theater features animated origin stories of several different tribes. The theater is circular with an exterior that is the shape and design of a Caddo clay pot that was designed by Jeri Redcorn (Caddo and Potawatomi).
Finally, Chief Curator of the First Americans Museum, Heather Ahtone (Chocktaw and Chickasaw), took the group through the exhibits from origins to contemporary times, storytelling about the curatorial team’s process for each exhibit.
Watch a video of the tour with museum staff:
The First Americans Museum is truly the culmination of a monumental amount of Indigenous knowledge, history, art, creativity and culture. Our deepest gratitude to the museum staff for taking the time to show off this incredible accomplishment.