After Two Decades, Chickasaw Cultural Center Opens

SULPHUR, Okla. (AP) -- For generations, members of the Chickasaw Nation told the tribe's stories of hardship and renewal through its families, community organizations and churches. Using money from its large casino operations, its culture and history is featured in a $40 million cultural center.

More than two decades ago, tribal leaders broached the possibility of creating a site where Chickasaw culture, heritage and history could be more formally shared. "Now we have the resources to actively recover our history," said tribal historian and author Phil Morgan.

The Chickasaw Cultural Center -- after six years of construction -- traces the tribe's life from its ancestral homelands in what is now the southeastern United States, then along the Trail of Tears, then to its emergence in recent years as one of Oklahoma's most prominent American Indian tribes.

In late July, the Ada-based tribe -- which has 48,600 citizens -- opened the cultural center in Murray County adjacent to the Chickasaw National Recreation Area. The center "reflects the vision, imagination, resilience and spirit of the Chickasaw people," longtime tribal Gov. Bill Anoatubby said.

Located on a 109-acre site with rolling hills, woodlands and streams, the cultural center includes a 350-seat theater with a 2,400-square-foot screen, an exhibit center and a replica of a traditional Chickasaw village -- which can be viewed from above on a 40-foot-high sky terrace. It also has a cafe that serves items inspired by traditional Chickasaw fare, a garden where the tribe's hall of fame is honored and a research center.

The campus incorporates trees and plants indigenous to Oklahoma and to Mississippi, which was part of the tribe's traditional homelands. A 9-foot-tall sculpture of a Chickasaw warrior -- created by former state Sen. Enoch Kelly Haney, a former chief of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma -- greets visitors.

Plans call for tribal traditions such as stomp dances and stickball games to be conducted in the village, along with language and cultural demonstrations. The key "is not just to see things, but to do things," said Amanda Cobb-Greetham, the administrator of the tribe's division of history and culture.

"This is going to be a place of constant activity," Cobb-Greetham said. "There's not one single room in any building that has not been designed in such a way as to have special features that make it Chickasaw in some way.

She said people who have lived near the Chickasaws their entire lives might not be familiar with their culture.

"Everything, even down to the menu in the cafe, is designed to be an educational experience," she said.

The Chickasaws aren't the only Oklahoma tribe that has built a cultural center, but their center is among the most ambitious of its type, said Gena Timberman, the executive director of the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority, the group behind the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City.

"They really paid so much attention to detail," Timberman said. "They took a very thoughtful approach to building the content that would share the authentic, grand scope and drama of the Chickasaw experience."

Timberman said parts of the center also will appeal to children, which she said is key to keeping tribal traditions alive.

"It's very important that we have places like that, that spark a child's curiosity to learn more about their culture and amaze them and cause people to pause to listen to the stories in wonderment," she said.

The Chickasaws' first contact with Europeans came in 1540, when Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto encountered them. According to the tribe's website, the Chickasaws had already developed town sites by that point. They later conducted trade with other tribes and with French and English settlers and allied with the English during the French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763.

In the exhibit center, people can sit in a re-creation of an 18th-century Chickasaw council house and watch a short film on the tribe's history. The screen then opens up into the "Spirit Forest," which uses concealed projectors, theatrical lighting, motion detectors, timers and speakers to provide visitors with a sense of being in a real forest.

Historical exhibits include a long hallway known as the "Removal" exhibit, which uses interactive elements to tell the story of the Trail of Tears -- the forced movement of the Chickasaws and other tribes from their southeastern homelands to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma in the 1830s.

Tying everything together, Cobb-Greetham said, is the use of three Chickasaw symbols throughout the center -- the spiral, which symbolizes the wind and life's journey; the sacred eye, which represents the eye of God, signifying the view through which Chickasaws view the world; and the sun, which symbolizes birth or renewal and the heavenly realm.

As he signed books during a recent open house at the cultural center, Morgan said tribal members take pride in what their people have been able to overcome through the years. He sees the cultural center as a place where tribal traditions can be celebrated and continued.

"This is designed to be a learning center," Morgan said. "It's a rallying place where Chickasaws can enjoy each other and share our culture with the people of Oklahoma and elsewhere at large. It makes the statement that we have survived and we will continue."