Back in 1895, the Oklahoma Historical Society received a Cheyenne art-decorated rattle that became the first American Indian artifact listed in the OHS collections. It has been followed by collections of artifacts, photos, documents, music, video and other items from all over Oklahoma.
The preservation of American Indian culture has focused not just on artifacts and images, but also prehistoric and historic locations in Oklahoma. Preservation has been pursued over the decades at a variety of sites, including Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center, Sequoyah's Cabin, the Pawnee Bill Ranch, the George M. Murrell Home, the Doaksville archaeological dig, the Chickasaw Cultural Center and the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site.
Now, the OHS board of directors has approved the OHS Office of American Indian Cultural Preservation. It is a new program to reach out to American Indian tribes, associations and families to preserve their cultural artifacts, archival documents, oral histories and historic sites.
“American Indian cultural preservation has been a major part of OHS programs since 1907,” said Dr. Bob Blackburn, executive director of OHS, “but we never have had specific working unit dedicated to that task. The creation of the Office of American Indian Cultural Preservation gives us that opportunity.”
William D. Welge, longtime director of the OHS Research Division and Indian archivist since 1982, has been named the director of this office The central mission of the office is to create a two-way exchange assistance, Welge said. The Historical Society will offer experience in archival management, museum exhibits and oral history best practices.
The Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center was opened near Spiro in eastern Oklahoma to preserve the only prehistoric American Indian site in the state, though there are more than 25,000 prehistoric sites in Oklahoma going back as far as 27,000 years ago.
The site was created and utilized from A.D. 800 until 1450 by Caddoan-speaking peoples who lived at the mound site and surrounding area, said Dennis Peterson, director of the center. They played an important part in the Mississippi Culture, a confederation that included as many as 6 million people in a trading and political alliance from the Gulf of California to Virginia and from the tip of Florida to the Great Lakes.
Incredible art was found at the Spiro Mounds during the 1930s, including engraved conch shell, fabric, lace, basketry, pottery, stone effigy pipes, elaborate masks, large copper plates and ornaments. This powerful art inspires American Indian artisans today, he said.
Sequoyah's Cabin near Sallisaw has continued its primary mission since 1936 to preserve the home of Sequoyah, who invented the Cherokee written language, said Jerry Dobbs, who directs the cabin for the society. Interpretive exhibits depict Cherokee history from DeSoto's discovery of the Cherokee in A.D. 1540 to the present day, he said.
The Pawnee Bill Ranch interprets the story of American Indian involvement in Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show, said Erin Brown, curator of the ranch for OHS. A special exhibit is “Powerful Images: American Indians in Wild West Shows,” she said. The story of Pawnee Bill's relationship with the Pawnee also is told.
The George M. Murrell Home, built in 1845, is the only remaining pre-Civil War plantation in Oklahoma,” said Amanda Pritchett, OHS historical interpreter. Murrell married Minerva Ross, niece of Cherokee Principal chief John Ross, in 1834. They moved to Indian Territory and settled in Park Hill, three miles south of Tahlequah. They built the plantation mansion, known as the Hunter's Home, and lived there until the Civil War. Various Ross family members lived there for 50 years.
The Doaksville archaeological site stems from a trading post established by Josiah Doaks during the 1820s. With signing of the Dancing Rabbit Creek and Doaks Stand treaties, Doaksville became a major destination. With Fort Towson nearby, Doaksville became the largest town in Indian Territory in 1860 and the Choctaw Nation commercial center. Doaksville now is an interpreted archaeological site operated by OHS.
The Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur was established in 2010 by the Chickasaw Historical Society to capture, revitalize and share the essence of Chickasaw culture through archives, collections and research. The Museums, Archives and Libraries department honors generations of Chickasaw and works to carry on those traditions.
The Washita Battlefield, administered by the National Park Service, preserves the site of the 1868 Battle of the Washita near Cheyenne in Roger Mills County. Lt. Col. George A. Custer led the 7th Cavalry against Cheyenne, Arapaho and Kiowa at the village of Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle, who was killed. The campaign continued into 1869.
“Working with these and other sites, we need to learn how Indian people want to record and share their history,” Blackburn said. “We will work with them no matter where collections are located and stored. The critical task is to collect and preserve those collections so they can be shared today and in the future.”
Max Nichols writes a monthly column for the Oklahoma Historical Society.