Shawnee center blends history, modern life

By The Associated Press Modified: February 25, 2008 at 7:10 am •  Published: February 25, 2008
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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.

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