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Path Open to Complete Oklahoma's American Indian Museum

Shannon Cornman / facebook.com/American-Indian-Cultural-Center-Museum-69018819020
he American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City.

It was conceived as a world-class showcase for Oklahoma's American Indian heritage: a museum and cultural center in the heart of the state once known as Indian Territory would house artifacts and folklore to tell the history of Oklahoma's 39 federally recognized tribes.

During the next two decades, however, cost overruns led to political disagreements and a shift in priorities that halted work on the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, now an empty concrete-and-steel curiosity that looms over two interstate highways near downtown Oklahoma City.

But the dream that launched the 173,000-square-foot project is being revived in an agreement among the state and a partnership between the city of Oklahoma City and the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma.

Last month, the city accepted the terms of legislation signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin last year to finish and operate the center. City and tribal officials are working out a final agreement.

"We are in a perfect position at I-35 and I-40 to get some of these cars off the highways and stay a day or two," said Blake Wade, executive director of the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority.

Bill Lance, secretary of commerce for the Chickasaw Nation, said the site is situated "literally at the crossroads of America." Surrounded by more than 100 acres of undeveloped commercial real estate, the museum offers the opportunity to unite Oklahoma's diverse tribes.

"I think it's everyone vision that this museum be a mechanism to strengthen tribal cooperation across the state, culturally and economically," Lance said.

Museum officials are moving forward with collecting exhibits and historical information from various tribes for eventual display. Exhibits and interpretive programs will be developed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates of New York City, whose work at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, has drawn praise.

"No one has understood how significant this is," Wade said.

Appelbaum's involvement has opened doors for cooperation from many other tribal-related museums, including the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, he said.

"We've been preparing for the last five years. He's then going to take it over," Wade said. "Because of him is why we've got all of this cooperation."

Construction is likely to resume this summer and with the structure fully operational in 2020.

The state had spent about $90 million on the project before construction was suspended in 2012. Although incomplete, the state is paying about $7 million a year to maintain the property and make payments on earlier construction bonds.

Under the agreement, the state will provide an additional $25 million in bonds for completion of the museum and transfer responsibility for its operation and maintenance to the city. The city will provide $9 million toward the structure's completion.

Wade said another $31 million will be provided by individual and corporate donors and that the Chickasaw Nation will provide the balance, about $15 million.

Tribal support for the project was critical to the city's decision to accept the state's offer to take it on, said Jim Couch, city manager of Oklahoma City.

"It was dead without it," Couch said, noting that operating a museum is not a key city function.

In December, the tribe, which operates the 109-acre Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, offered to partner with the city to help complete the stalled project. The tribe owns the WinStar World Casino and Resort in southern Oklahoma and has extensive expertise in the tourism and hospitality industries.

Lance said preliminary work has already begun on ways to develop commercial acreage surrounding the museum and hospitality is a part of the plan.

"Our key strategy is to have supporting amenities," Lance said. "This is a very complex commercial transaction. Oklahoma City and the Chickasaw Nation want to make sure it's done the right way."

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