More than 30 years ago, the Oklahoma Department of Commerce commissioned a study on the feasibility of an American Indian museum and cultural center in Oklahoma City.
The results — “sure, go ahead” — were what they usually are with such things, and thus began the long and yet remarkably short journey of the First Americans Museum.
Long in time, turmoil and money.
Short in distance.
Along the way, at least $175 million has been spent on the project. At least $90 million has come from the state of Oklahoma, $9 million from Oklahoma City and upwards of $14 million from the Chickasaw Nation.
There was also $6 million in federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds.
The FAM’s origins are generally traced to the creation of the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority in 1994, but it arguably goes back at least a few more years to that feasibility study.
In 1990, an intertribal task force, working with the Department of Tourism and Recreation and apparently in connection with the study, endorsed the concept of an Indian cultural center.
In little more than a year, by mid-1991, two separate groups announced plans to build such a facility.
One, constituting the Five Tribes and led by Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby, proposed a $28 million showplace near the intersection of Interstate 35 and the Turner Turnpike.
The other proposal, by the state’s other 29 recognized tribes and flying the Oklahoma Institute of Indian Heritage banner, was for a less-defined something at the I-35/I-40 interchange — about where the FAM is opening this month.
Disagreements between the two groups scotched early federal funding requests, leading then-U.S. Sen. Don Nichols to tell them they weren’t going to get anything “until they get their act together,” according to an October 1991 Associated Press story.
Not until creation of the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority three years later did the concept begin to take real shape. The state first appropriated money to the authority in 1996, and the site southeast of downtown Oklahoma City was officially chosen in 1998.
But the project, originally priced at $100 million, soon became far more expensive and difficult than had been imagined, especially in Oklahoma’s erratic economic climate.
There was a $5 million bond issue in 1998, and another $33 million in 2003. In 2005, Oklahoma City deeded the land over to the state. But construction didn’t begin until 2006 — 11 years after creation of the NACEA and 15 years after the first tentative plans were announced.
One problem was the site. While the location at the intersection of two busy interstate highways may have been a good one, there was a reason it had set vacant so long. The place was practically drenched in the dangerous residue of decades of oil production.
Cleansing it took a lot of time and a lot of money.
But the project itself was expensive. The authority’s members believed it was their duty to go first class all the way, and their budgets showed it.
In 2008, the authority asked for another $25 million bond issue on top of the $38 million already approved. The Legislature grudgingly agreed, but was increasingly skeptical of project and its management.
By 2010, the authority was out of money again but kept going with a $6 million allocation from the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
With the economy in a spin, private donors backed out and the Legislature turned away. In 2012 construction stopped.
But even in mothballs, the site was costing the state $7 million a year for security and debt service.
At one point, it was whispered that money from a bond issue for dilapidated state buildings might be funneled into the center, but nothing came of that. Then-Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, looked into selling the whole thing.
Finally, in 2015, then-Gov. Mary Fallin coaxed the Legislature into approving a $25 million bond issue — on the condition that Oklahoma City take over responsibility for the museum and a proposed commercial district adjacent to it.
When that stalled, too, Anoatubby and the Chickasaw Nation bought in for $14 million.
Construction resumed in 2018 and has proceeded with relatively few hiccups since. In 2019 the once-Native American Cultural Center and Museum became what it is today: First Americans Museum.