Potawatomi Cultural Heritage Center Reopens Four Years After Flood
SHAWNEE, Oklahoma - Saturday marked a special milestone for the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. They hosted the grand reopening of their Cultural Heritage Center in Shawnee. The museum was destroyed in a flood in 2014, but the tribe was able to overcome and make the museum even better than before.
The walk through Potawatomi history tells a story of strength and resilience against oppression. The descendants of those warriors needed those traits to fight a different kind of battle.
On March 31, 2014, an inactive Shawnee city water main running beneath the building suddenly became active again.
“We started to notice water coming up through various spots in the floor,” remembers center director Dr. Kelli Mosteller. Within an hour, an estimated 100,000 gallons of water poured into the museum.
Mosteller says, “Things were falling off the walls. We ended up having to cut a three foot by three-foot spot in the floor, and a geyser was coming through.”
The insurance claim paid out 18 months later, allowing Mosteller's team to start fresh on a new plan. Instead of an open space without walls like before, they transformed the center into a guided journey.
She says, “In the end, they’re able to understand the story as it happened for our ancestors and the history kind of unfolds in front of them.”
Throughout the museum, guests can experience life as a Potawatomi, with authentic pieces from the past like canoes and a wigwam built without modern tools. There is also a wall of moccasins, made by current tribal members to remember the Trail of Death that brought them from the Great Lakes to Oklahoma.
Isabelle Bonebrake was first in line for the reopening. She crafted a pair of baby moccasins for the museum, saying, “They had the babies with them, and my ancestor was a baby in the Bursaw family.”
Families also brought their children to the grand opening to share this history, hoping they too will continue to pass it on.
Today, the Potawatomi Nation is the largest employer in Pottawatomie County, but Mosteller says, “All of the enterprises, all of the jobs we’re providing, the reason we are doing that is to hold onto our distinct heritage, our distinct culture as a sovereign nation. If we don’t have this cultural base, then it really is all for nothing."
The museum is free and open to the public. You can visit it at 1899 S Gordon Cooper Dr in Shawnee Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.