Oklahoma's hope for cashing in on heritage becomes a debacle

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Posted: Jan 23, 2015 1:51 AM
Oklahoma's hope for cashing in on heritage becomes a debacle

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Like many states, Oklahoma wants to be a tourist destination. And leaders here believe they have an ideal attraction: Oklahoma's heritage as the U.S. Indian Territory in the 1800s and as home to 39 tribes.

But after nearly 10 years and $90 million spent, what was to be the centerpiece for a tourism magnet, a Smithsonian-quality museum of Native American culture, has become a costly debacle that had yet to lure its first visitor and is stirring sour feelings among the Indians whose traditions would be portrayed.

Strategically located at the crossroads of two major interstates, and next to Oklahoma City's glitzy redeveloped downtown entertainment district, sits a modernistic complex of C-shaped buildings that is large enough to fit 30 football fields but only half finished and out of money.

Another $40 million is needed for the project, but the Legislature is balking at paying, in a head-on collision between the state's tourism ambitions and its increasingly conservative, anti-spending politics.

"The state was too aggressive here and bit off more than it could chew," said Republican Rep. Jason Murphey, one of many legislators in the GOP-controlled House who opposes more state money for the museum. "And we're paying for that mistake, but this isn't the time to double down."

Even the support of the state's Republican governor, Mary Fallin, and the state Senate and an earlier pledge of $40 million in mostly private funds haven't broken the stalemate, which will confront the Legislature when it reconvenes next month.

In another twist, the recent swoon in oil prices may now make any appropriation harder to get, even though the price drop has underscored the need to diversify the state's energy-dependent economy.

"Our caucus has brainstormed on some different ideas, and I don't have an answer today about what that looks like," said House Speaker Jeffrey Hickman.

The vision for the Indian attraction began in the 1980s when oil prices collapsed from more than $35 per barrel to below $10. Oil and gas production taxes accounted for more than one-third of the state-appropriated budget at the time.

Studies projected that a Native American cultural center could bring in up to 225,000 visitors and $190 million annually. The Legislature approved a series of bond issues to pay for it.

The museum would weave together the stories of the dozens of tribes forced by the U.S. government to move out of the path of white expansion in other regions to the remote prairies of what is now Oklahoma. The forced removals included the notorious "Trail of Tears," in which more than 17,000 Cherokees were marched overland from their ancestral home in Georgia. An estimated 4,000 died during the trek.

About 120,000 Indians overall were resettled here before the territory itself was gradually opened to white settlers in a series of land runs beginning in the late 1880s.

Oklahoma — named after the Choctaw word for "red people" — has a story ripe for presentation to visitors, according to historians and museum experts.

"Because of the unprecedented and unequalled assemblage of Indian nations in Oklahoma, it's a very unique story and one that is national in scope," said Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian has offered a major loan of artifacts from its huge Native American collection.

The museum's ambitious design features several huge galleries, a multipurpose theater and a gathering space dubbed the Hall of the People. Towering stone walls at one entrance were built with thousands of individual stones that symbolized the tribes' journeys to Oklahoma. The site includes a 90-foot-tall earthen mound visible for miles, inspired by the mound building Native American cultures.

But the project didn't get the federal funds its backers expected, and the Legislature, which grew more conservative in recent elections, wouldn't approve another bond issue.

Although the Indian history portrayed is one of struggle and loss, many Native Americans in Oklahoma welcomed the tribute and have been put off by the political fight, especially suggestions that the tribes themselves put up the needed money — beyond the $20 million they've already kicked in — to finish what was always a state project.

"I don't understand why it hasn't been completed," said Kelly Haney, a renowned Native American artist and former chief of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. "I've never lost my faith in the fact that the cultural center will be built. I still think it will. I just don't know how."

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy