Culture In Limbo

A museum 20 years in the works is dealt a harsh blow.

Proponents of the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum remain optimistic for the center’s future despite funding and construction hurdles. Photo courtesy AICCM.

Proponents of the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum remain optimistic for the center’s future despite funding and construction hurdles. Photo courtesy AICCM.

Oklahoma City’s American Indian Cultural Center and Museum won’t see completion anytime soon. The 20-year-old project remains in limbo after this year’s legislature adjourned without allocating the funds needed to finish the work. The project is $80 million short of opening the front doors, and private donors that were ready to match a $40 million state contribution are now ready to walk.

“We are awaiting direction from state leaders with regard to how they want to proceed with this state-owned project,” says J. Blake Wade, the center’s director. “In the meantime, I am working diligently with donors to retain the $40 million in non-state monies that was pledged several years ago. We have to have a solution soon to preserve their generosity.”

Some believe the Oklahoma legislature’s dropped ball is a symptom of the state’s budget crunch. The funding bill sailed through the Senate but wasn’t introduced in the house. That decision was made by House Speaker Jeff Hickman, who says it’s common to keep controversial bills that don’t enjoy majority support off the floor.

“Obviously, we need to do something with the facility. It’s been started, and it’s not completed. I think we’ll continue to explore all the options on the House side. If members work out a plan they can rally around, there may be a possibility to work this out in the future,” Hickman says.

Sen. Kyle Loveless, a longtime supporter of the center, says the bill had support and should have been introduced in the House and given the opportunity to pass or fail on its merits.

Its supporters in the Capitol were prepared to raid the state’s unclaimed property fund to bankroll it. Now they’re talking about circumventing the legislature altogether, pulling funds from the state’s tobacco settlement fund and other funds that don’t require legislative approval for high-dollar spending.

“That might be the way to go, but for a project this big, I believe the best way of proceeding would be a package that the legislature had some input on,” says Loveless. “It might be legally okay to do, but for me a project like this needs to have the people who represent the people sign off on it. That being said, if that’s our last shot, that’s our last shot.”

Great Expectations

The American Indian Cultural Center and Museum is intended to open the door to understanding Oklahoma’s many American Indian tribes.

“A visitor will spend a day discovering why the Oklahoma American Indian experience is representative of America’s national story,” says Shoshana Wasserman, AICCM director of communications and cultural tourism.

The 85-acre park and center will feature galleries housing a permanent collection of artifacts from the state’s tribes, highlighting the history and contributions of each. There will also be space devoted to traveling and temporary exhibitions of contemporary American Indian art, plus the Turtle Shell Gallery, which will house pieces on loan from the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The Family Discovery Center will be a child-friendly, interactive space using media to highlight tribal leaders of the past and present, American Indian stories, tribal symbolism and native languages.

Along with a café, the center will also have theater venues for live presentations, film and cultural demonstrations as well as space for participants to record and tell their family histories.

“Once a visitor has experienced the collective story of the [state’s] 39 tribes, then they will be prepared to travel to each of the distinctive tribal nations,” Wasserman says. – Karen Shade