Saturday marks a big day for the city and our native population three decades in the making: The grand opening of the First Americans Museum.
The 173,000 square foot facility has symbolism embedded in almost every corner. But perhaps the biggest unintended representation is the struggle to get to this point.
A ground blessing ceremony in November of 2005 marked the start of construction of the then Native American Cultural Center and Museum. After more than a decade of controversy and conversation over where the museum would be located and who would pay for it, it seemed the project was finally underway.
“This journey we are starting today will allow us to create a place to tell our story together,” Gov. Bill Anoatubby, the Chickasaw Nation governor said at the time.
The state legislature passed, and Gov. Brad Henry signed the $33 million bond issue to build the center.
The tribes, as well as corporate and private citizens and even the federal government were asked to pay for the rest of the project.
The Oklahoma City Council agreed to lease the state the land to build the museum.
By the next milestone. the completion of the promontory mound in 2008 about half of the now $150 million dollar price tag had been raised.
Then in 2012 construction came to a halt when the state decided to quit paying for the project. The half-finished museum and cultural center sat idle as project managers sought the additional $80 million needed to complete it.
Finally in 2015 the legislature came up with a plan. The state passed a $25 million bond to help finish the project. Project managers said they had an additional $31 million in private funds. The City of Oklahoma City would have to pay the remaining $9 million, oversee the remaining construction and take over yearly operational costs. In exchange they would eventually take over ownership of the museum and the surrounding land.
But that wasn't a deal the city was interested in.
“This requires a significant capital investment on our part as well as the private sector and then there are the operational issues of operating this 30 years into the future,” said then Mayor Mick Cornett.
Then the Chickasaw tribe stepped in offering to cover operating expenses for seven years up to $2 million a year and would help with any construction costs over the $65 million tag. The tribe would then be allowed to develop the valuable property surrounding the cultural center.
Finally in 2019 construction began again.
“It’s been a long journey, but you know, that is also reflective of our histories. Our histories as native peoples have not always been easy,” reflected Associate Director Shoshana Wasserman at the time.
By the end of that year the American Indian Cultural Center was renamed the First American's Museum.
And this summer exhibits were moved in and final touches put in place for Saturday's grand opening.