SHAWNEE — On any given day at the Cultural Heritage Center, the story of someone's life is honored.
The veteran who served in Vietnam. The man telling the emotional saga of his ancestors. The accounts of those forced to travel the Trail of Tears and the Trail of Death.
The Citizen Potawatomi Nation's facility on Gordon Cooper Drive has become more popular, and busy, in the two years since it opened. It is a place for telling stories and the preservation of those stories, of viewing artifacts and safeguarding those pieces of history.
"Honoring our families and our veterans is the mission here," said Cindy Stewart, facilities manager and executive assistant to the director.
In the center's total 36,000 square feet of space, visitors use high-tech methods to peruse ancient history. In the Long Room, which also serves as meeting space for some 700 people, the Veterans' Wall of Honor is the main attraction. Ten display cases contain uniforms and other memorabilia of tribal soldiers who served from the Civil War to today's Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Computer kiosks allow people to search 650 names of veterans and their service. Pictures of 240 of those veterans are available.
A quotation along the ceiling, author unknown, tells the tribe's philosophy: "Poor is the nation that has no heroes, but disgraceful are those who having them forgets."
Jon Boursaw, executive director of the Cultural Heritage Center, is honored for his own military service. He said the veterans' wall, along with the center's mission of preserving veteran and tribal stories, has been a healing and learning experience, both for natives and non-natives. The more that people discover what takes place at the center, the more stories and photos they provide, he said.
Much of the rest of the facility is devoted to the display of that history. A tree-lined walk takes visitors into an area featuring more photos, artifacts and historical records. Banners represent the 49 founding families who signed the Treaty of 1861 in Kansas. Eight projectors show more family photos, thousands during every week. Glass, climate-controlled display cases hold much more: traditional men's and women's regalia, ledgers of allotments and census rolls, many of them very old and fragile.
A large, winding pictorial wall tells of the migration of the Citizen Potawatomi from before the arrival of Europeans to the tribe's coming to Oklahoma to their progress during their time here. A timeline gives visitors details from different perspectives.
"These markers tell you what was happening in the non-Indian world and what was happening in the world of Native Americans. It gives you a correlation," Boursaw said.
Several artifacts, too, are featured in cases along the wall, including a cane on loan from the Kansas Historical Society. Once the cane was prepared for display, Boursaw said there was a surprise: the top half of the cane separated and became a dagger.
"It belonged to a chief who was on the 1838 Trail of Death," Boursaw said. "He was always shown with the cane in pictures. We're trying to add more artifacts to the wall to make the photos more like living history."
Along another wall the 14-by-40-foot Treaty Wall are copies of 22 of the 44 treaties the Citizen Potawatomi Nation has with the federal government, dating to the 1700s. Nearby computer kiosks allow people to view the treaties as they appear on the wall or in printed text. The other 22 treaties will be going up in the future.
"They are the actual size, color and shape of the treaties as they are in the National Archives," Boursaw said. "We were fortunate that the archives let us scan the originals."
Other parts of the building are dedicated to the preservation and storage of artifacts. In the White Glove Examination Room, the name tells of the attire required to examine precious artifacts, including a "foot locker," or storage trunk, dating to the 1890s and thought to be the only one of its type left. On the side of the foot locker are the words "Carlisle Indian School," the Indian boarding school in Carlisle, Pa., that Jim Thorpe attended.
In the next-door secure storage area, the humidity is kept at 60-65 percent to preserve the thousands of artifacts lining tall shelves that move with the touch of a button. In one drawer is a woman's regalia from the early 1900s, an extremely fragile dress that still had long strands of black hair on it when it arrived.
However, artifacts must first go through the Cleaning and Processing Room, where staff members ensure they're free from fungus or insects. One area contains a CO2 "cocoon," the first of its kind in a U.S. museum, and the other a freezer that drops the temperature to 41 degrees below zero. Both processes, gassing or freezing, kill any unseen invaders that could damage items in storage, Stewart said. The director of this area is fondly called "the bug lady."
Much of the rest of the facility is devoted to the various ways people can tell the stories of their lives and research their ancestors. A video room allows people to watch family DVDs, including many of the stories of the 49 founding families. A library contains many books about tribal history, and the tribal rolls are housed in the facility as well. The Family Research Area has a more relaxed feel with sofas and chairs where people can watch more videos and look through archive boxes of family history and photographs. Nearby are three computers for genealogical research.
Another high-tech area is a television studio where the stories of veterans and elders are recorded. Stewart said they also call it the "healing room" because when difficult stories are shared, such as war service or a family's forced removal, there is healing in the telling.
"When people see the family videos, they want to be a part of it," Stewart said. "We honor families and want you to come in and tell your story. We want you to remember what it was like as a child and the stories your grandparents and great-grandparents told. But we also want to know what is going on in your life today."
A children's area soon will be built and will feature a full-sized wigwam and 12-foot birch bark and dugout canoes the youth can crawl through.
Artwork by tribal member Beverly Fentress lines the foyer and an inside wall, her vibrant colors and illustrations further telling the Potawatomi story with images ranging from a round house to a medicine wheel to the grand entry of a pow wow.