The newly opened Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur stands less as a monument to bygone days and more as a marker of a contemporary culture 

Amanda Cobb-Greetham reads them regularly: the notes from community meetings the Chickasaw Nation began having a decade and a half ago, asking its citizens the best way to honor their culture.

"They wanted to make sure that whatever they did met the vision and desire of the Chickasaw people," said Cobb-Greetham, the administrator of the division of history and culture at the new Chickasaw Cultural Center. The notes from those meetings are in her office. "It's pleasing to see the extent to which the reality is true to that vision."

The Chickasaw Cultural Center opened its doors July 24. More than 1,000 visitors descended on the site that day.

"Chickasaws of all ages and from all walks of life helped make (the center) a reality," Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby told the crowd. "This beautiful place reflects the vision, imagination and spirit of the Chickasaw people."

The center also reflects the land from which it arises. Cobb-Greetham noted the architectural elements used in the buildings " from stone exteriors to wooden beams and water features " mirror the Chickasaws' past and their connection to the earth.

"From an architecture standpoint, we tried to marry the interiors and the outside environment so that what's on all of the buildings is in all of the buildings," she said. "We wanted it to look like it grew out of the earth."

Located on 109 acres near the Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Sulphur, the center's mission is "to capture the essence of Chickasaw culture; to revitalize and share Chickasaw culture and traditions through cultural demonstrations and community outreach activities; to preserve, protect and add to Chickasaw history through archives, collections and research; to provide educational opportunities to the Chickasaw people; and to share our unique culture with the world."

With more than 96,000 square feet of indoor building space, the center features a main gallery and museum, a theater with a four-story screen, a café, a gift shop, an administration building and a research facility. Tours of the Chikasha Poya Exhibit Center begin with a 20-minute film outlining the history of the Chickasaw people from pre-Trail of Tears Mississippian culture, through removal and relocation and into the 20th century and the present day.

In the film, Chickasaw storytellers invite guests to engage their culture through the exhibits.

"Learn who we are," they say. "Let us share our story with you."

Ancient Chickasaw history is told through a series of audiovisual aids in the Spirit Forest, an interactive area featuring sound and light displays, and plant and animal life reminiscent of the Chickasaw's original homeland. As visitors walk through the forest, night becomes day, and then night again as the voices of storytellers narrate ancient history and legend.

The exhibits continue through a gallery illustrating the history of removal and the Chickasaw's settlement in Indian Territory; another with a glowing fire and a holographic wall simulates the tribe's centuries-old stomp dances; and one showcasing Chickasaw governors and tribal leaders, plus numerous tribal artifacts.

Throughout, interactive language stations help visitors learn the Chickasaw language. Outside, a traditional village functions as a center of instruction and will feature stickball and cooking demonstrations, and classes on woodworking, beading and other arts. The village is overlooked by a four-story terrace, called the Aba' Aanowa' Sky Pavilion, which allows visitors a bird's-eye view of the grounds.

Cobb-Greetham said that input from the Chickasaw community was vital in construction, creating something that was less a monument to bygone days and more a testament to who the Chickasaw people are today.

"Traditionally, Native Americans have had an awkward and tense relationship with museums," she said. "In museums, we're displayed behind glass as cultures from long ago. This center is a center of cultural life for the Chickasaw people. It's a place where you do things, experience things. The cultural center honors our past and points out what a vibrant and dynamic culture we have now. It's an investment in our culture. It's a living place." 

first photo This Chickasha warrior statue by former state Sen. Enoch Kelly Haney, the former principal chief of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, stands at the Chickasaw Cultural Center. Photo/Carroll Hancock
second photo A traditional Chickasaw village. Photo/Nathan Gunter
third photo A hand-carved canoe decorates the lobby of the Chikasha Poya Exhibit Center. Photo/Nathan Gunter
fourth photo A traditional Chickasaw totem stands in the courtyard. Photo/Nathan Gunter

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