Commemorating Native Heritage Month:
Visiting the Choctaw Cultural Center in Durant, Oklahoma
I’m a proud member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, but, like many Oklahomans I’m sure, I’m not as connected to that part of my heritage and ancestry as I’d like to be. Several generations back, my ancestors chose not to affiliate with our tribe, and while I don’t know the exact reasoning, I can guess that during a time of forced assimilation when their ancestry and cultural ways were maligned and dehumanized, it may have felt easier to them to disassociate from our tribe, though that realization and the consequential breech in the passing down of our history and heritage breaks my heart. Along with my mother, my family is on a journey to reconnect to our rich culture and teach my three children the history lessons I didn’t learn in school so they can take proud ownership and be good stewards of their Choctaw heritage.
In addition to learning together at home with curriculum prepared by Oklahoma City Public Schools’ Native American Student Services, we recently ventured to two brand new facilities to experience our tribe and the 38 other diverse tribal nations that now call Oklahoma home, the First Americans Museum in OKC and the Choctaw Cultural Center in Durant.
Choctaw Cultural Center, Durant
About 3 hours south of Tulsa
The new Choctaw Cultural Center opened in July, with a mission to tell the 14,000-year history of the Chahta people after more than 10 years of work creating the space. The opportunity to be fully immersed in our Native heritage in one facility was incredibly moving, particularly to hear of both the historic and modern day vibrancy through the voices of tribal members. The center is truly one of the most top-notch museums I’ve ever visited (and I’m a museum junkie!) in terms of the quality and creativity of presentation in the exhibits, artifacts, film and interactive technology. The abiding themes of compassion, courage and faith are apparent as visitors are guided on a timeline from the rich history of our moundbuilding ancestors to the struggle against the destruction of colonizers to the triumph of the Nation in modern times.
My kids were entirely enthralled for the duration of our 2-hour visit. Here are their favorite parts:
1. Luksi Activity Center.
A giant luksi (turtle in Choctaw) is center stage in this kid-friendly space. Inside the luksi are comfy benches perfect for reading provided storybooks. Plus, kids can enjoy playing in two home structures as well as a lookout and slide. Kid-size tables and chairs offer coloring sheets of animals with their names in Choctaw and English, activity books and toys like magnatiles.
2. Orientation Gallery.
Just the past the lobby, a short corridor is lined with murals of 12 Choctaw people, representing the 12 Choctaw districts. The uniqueness represented in their histories, interests and cultural manifestations are a beautiful tribute to the diversity of the Choctaw people, all with a common love for their heritage and perfectly capturing the vibrancy of tribal members today. Next, an Orientation Theater features a short video about Choctaw culture. This introduction to the museum helps all visitors, Native and non-Native, feel connected to the Choctaw spirit.
3. Chahta Pia (We Are Choctaw).
We walked through a tribal village to see a vignette of ancestors preparing foods from a harvest and into a log home structure, learning about the original Mississippi homelands of the Choctaw people. My kids loved pivoting touchscreens they could direct into the forest, capturing various animals on the screen to learn the animal’s name in Choctaw and hear a Choctaw story about each one.
4. Moving Fires.
Beginning with a film about the Choctaw people’s relationship with the United States government, this section is tough to bear witness to the hardships the tribe endured at the hand of government leaders. The film and a walking timeline take visitors through the series of treaties and negotiations, which led to the Trail of Tears. Smaller rooms along the way feature heartbreaking accounts of what families endured during the forced removal from Mississippi to Oklahoma. The hardships the Choctaw people faced once they arrived in Oklahoma are also documented, from being swindled out of their money for land that was never bequeathed by money-hungry individuals to being locked in a warehouse without adequate food and medical care. While my kids have learned this history, experiencing it in this way was new and a little overwhelming for them, but we took our time in this space to process what we were learning and continued to do so after our visit as well.
5. The Choctaw People in Oklahoma Landscape.
The largest and final of the four landscapes in the main galleries shares the story of the Choctaw people in Oklahoma, from the early years of the 1830s to the modern Choctaw Nation. Traveling through the vignettes of a schoolhouse, church, stickball field and home, guests learn about the policies of land allotment, Choctaw schools and education and stickball, as well as ways the Choctaw Nation continues to invest in tribal members and their communities. My kids especially loved watching a game of stickball, learning more about the history behind the game and why today’s tribal members love to play.
Because it was raining the day we visited, we did not get to experience the outdoor Living Village, but that just means we’ll have to go back soon! The village is situated along a walking path and includes traditional Choctaw dwellings, a garden and a mound, reflecting the rich moundbuilding culture of the Choctaw people. Tours are self-guided and occasionally guests can enjoy dance, stickball and other demonstrations.
Also, don’t miss the Champuli Cafe, serving traditional Choctaw fare with recipes passed down through generations, as well as modern offerings. Our kids enjoyed woodfired pizzas while the grownups loved the grilled salmon with a honey chipotle glaze, Choctaw sweet potato squash and roasted broccolini.
The Center is open Wednesday through Sunday. Adult admission is $12 and children ages 4 to 12 is $6. Admission is free for Choctaw tribal members and children 3 and under, and discounts are given for active military, veterans, seniors, college students and citizens of other federally recognized tribes.
Looking for more opportunities to experience Native culture? Take an art-cation to enjoy Native public art throughout the state. Plan your trip here.
Erin Page is managing editor of MetroFamily Magazine Oklahoma City, an award-winning writer, wife to Jordan and mom to Addie, Hutch and Weston. In addition to exploring the state with her family, Erin enjoys running, cooking and hiding from her kids to eat chocolate.