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Culture wars


Amid some opposition, American Indian Cultural Center & Museum officials hope donors remain loyal to the uncompleted venue.

Tim Farley July 23rd, 2013

Supporters of the half-built American Indian Cultural Center & Museum (AICCM) were days away from receiving $40 million in state funds this state legislative session when a deadly tornado ripped through south Oklahoma City and Moore.

Sen. Kyle Loveless
Credit: Shannon Cornman

The money would have sealed the completion of the project, which originated 18 years ago as a concept for advancing Oklahoma’s Native American culture. Having faced numerous hurdles before, museum supporters advised legislative leaders to delay action and focus attention on the tornado victims.

Bill Anoatubby, governor of the Chickasaw Nation, wrote at the time, “We choose that which is most important. People, their trials, their heartaches and their lives are of greatest importance. Families are hurting. Lives have been lost. Helping our friends, neighbors and families through this hardship takes priority. There is another day to perform our task.”

Four days before the tornado hit, Senate and House budget committee members signed off on Senate Bill 1132, a funding measure that would divert a percentage of the state’s use tax to the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority (NACEA) over a three-year period beginning in 2015. NACEA, a state agency created by state lawmakers in 1994, has direct oversight of the AICCM project.

Now, Blake Wade, NACEA executive director, and Lee Allan Smith, chairman of the private donor campaign, are working to keep those pledges.

Smith said most of the donors will remain loyal to the project while watching what action state lawmakers take next year. The $40 million in public funds combined with $40 million in private contributions will allow for the center’s completion.

“[Donors] think it’s a good thing for the city and state. They’re great, forward-thinking Oklahomans,” Smith said. “They value their money, but they also value what’s good for Oklahoma.”

Legislative leaders have promised to consider the AICCM issue early next legislative session, which begins Feb. 2, 2014. If the $40 million appropriation is approved, museum construction will resume immediately, Wade said.


Critics cry out
Still, passage for the needed public funding is far from complete.

State Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, continues to be one of AICCM’s most vocal critics, contending that too much state money has been spent on it already, and that the venue “will never turn a profit.”

So far, legislators have appropriated $63 million through state bond issues, plus spending $52,000 a month for site maintenance and security as the project remains idle. However, Treat conceded the museum would be a “state asset” by telling the story of the 39 tribes headquartered in Oklahoma.

That’s about the only portion of the project that he and supporters can agree on.

Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, whose district includes the AICCM site, called Treat’s viewpoint “simply shortsighted.”

Credit: Shannon Cornman

“If we (state officials) make a commitment, we need to make sure that happens,” he said.

Loveless also challenged Treat’s comments about profitability for the museum.

The center’s economic impact is estimated at $3.8 billion over the next 20 years.

“The idea it won’t turn a profit is absurd,” said Loveless. “If you think about it, what state agency in Oklahoma does turn a profit?” Wade and Loveless agree that the museum’s location, south of Eastern Avenue and Interstate 40, is critical to attracting visitors. An estimated 225,000 people are projected to visit the museum in its first year, Wade said.


Politics as usual
Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, author of SB 1132, said he believes the measure will pass the House and Senate next session by slim margins, due to regional politics between urban and rural legislators.

“We need to finish it and finish it properly,” he said. “We’re paying millions of bond debt and getting nothing in return now.”

Gov. Mary Fallin, House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, and President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, publicly have stated support for the project and its completion.

Last year, the NACEA received good news when an audit requested by state legislators showed no financial mismanagement or abuse at the agency in connection with the museum project.

Treat was among a handful of lawmakers who complained project organizers were selecting the most expensive design and architectural plan.

However, Wade countered that future museum exhibits and artifacts must meet Smithsonian environmental and design specifications — an issue that created additional costs.

“This will become a destination spot like no one has ever seen,” Wade said, noting that AICCM is bound to create additional economic development along the south side of the Oklahoma River.

Shoshana Wasserman, NACEA director of communications and cultural tourism, said the museum will tell the first-ever “collective story” of all 39 tribes.

The exhibits, she said, will be representative of America’s history since only three of the tribes are indigenous to Oklahoma; the other tribes came from elsewhere in the U.S.

“This is not a local story or a state story,” she said. “It is a national story.”

Wasserman contends Oklahoma has not fulfilled its mission to capitalize on the state’s Western and Native American heritage.

“Tourism is the third-largest industry in Oklahoma, and we need to uplift the Western heritage and Native American brands,” she said. “Couple the [National Cowboy &] Western Heritage Museum with the story of the 39 tribes and you will have a significant amount of economic power.


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