Oklahoma has contributed to the American Indian voice nationally

Several American Indian leaders of prominent museums grew up in the state.
BY PETER WRIGHT Modified: December 28, 2013 at 6:00 pm •  Published: December 28, 2013
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The growth of cultural tourism in Oklahoma is hard to miss. Ever-present advertisements tell the stories, present and historical, of tribes' experiences. There are new tribal museums and cultural centers all over the state.

Although the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City still sits in a state of partial construction, it, too, has become a symbol for how much cultural education and tourism have grown in Oklahoma.

It's easy to stop the story there, but Oklahoma has also contributed nationally.

Several Indian leaders of prominent museums around the country grew up in Oklahoma. Five of them spoke with The Oklahoman recently about arts, culture and giving a national voice to Indians themselves.

Jim Pepper Henry

The Heard Museum in Phoenix has displayed and sold primarily Southwestern American Indian art and artifacts for 84 years. Four months ago the museum hired its first American Indian director.

Jim Pepper Henry, a member of the Kaw Nation of Oklahoma, became director and CEO of the Heard on Aug. 5.

“It wasn't that long ago, my grandparents' generation, when they (Indians) weren't even allowed in the museum,” Henry said.

That prejudice extended into the academic world. Non-American Indian archaeologists collected artifacts without recording their true cultural meanings, he said.

Tribal members who could provide context were not considered authoritative and dismissed.

Attitudes changed. There's now a wave of American Indians taking leadership positions in schools and museums. That fosters better relationships between tribes and outside institutions, one of Henry's goals for the Heard.

“I've always loved the Heard Museum as an artist because all of my Native American heroes are represented here,” he said.

Before he landed at the Heard, Henry was the director of the Anchorage Museum in Alaska, and he's worked at several other museums.

Starting out as an artist who worked in a museum for steady income, at some point museum leadership took over, he said.

He returns to Oklahoma at least once a year to take part in traditional dance ceremonies.

In 1995 he moved back to Oklahoma to help build the Kaw Nation's cultural center, and he joined a short-lived movement for an early version of the American Indian Cultural Center around that same time, he said.

Aside from simply having many different native peoples, Oklahoma is better at preserving culture than other states, he said. That may play a role in why so many American Indian museum leaders have roots here.

Della Warrior

Preserving culture by revisiting the past is part of the mission at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) in Santa Fe, N.M.

Della Warrior, a member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe who was born in Oklahoma, became director of the MIAC in June.

Like Henry, she is the first American Indian to lead the museum, which was constructed in 1987 but houses Indian artifacts in a collection that was started around the turn of the century.

Although the museum has a long history of engagement with tribal communities, some keep it at “arm's length” because it's an outside institution, but its collection contains their cultures, Warrior said. She hopes that tribes will be more comfortable using the museum's resources with an American Indian leader now.

“I view it as an opportunity to really see how communities can become more involved with the museum,” she said.

She plans to host a series of round-table discussions on how to increase access to the museum for different tribes.

Recently, one tribe borrowed some pottery from the collection to make its own exhibit, and another tribe is using the museum's library to write its own history.

Much of Warrior's career has been centered on education, and reaching young people is still a top goal. She hopes American Indian students will gain a sense of identity and history from museums like the MIAC, but it's always a challenge.

“The arts and cultures of native peoples are what have enabled the native peoples of this nation to endure, survive and thrive. Museums through their collections can make a tremendous contribution to the sustainability of native peoples' tribal heritages,” she said.

Patsy Phillips

Patsy Phillips, a member of the Cherokee Nation from Tahlequah, initially thought anthropology would suit her desire to tell American Indian stories until she discovered she liked living history more. She is the director of the Museum of Contemporary Native American Arts also in Santa Fe, N.M.

“I like challenging the mind, not just my mind but others,'” Phillips said.

After getting a degree in cultural anthropology and finding jobs in museums and art exhibits, she ended up working for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian for several years.

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