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First Americans Museum

Engaging the Earth

Johnson Fain

First Americans Museum
By Michael Webb -
dormakaba, Vetrotech Saint-Gobain have participated in the project

Kids growing up in America in the postwar decades watched Westerns on television, cheering the cowboys as they fought the Indians, and reenacting those battles with toy guns in the street. Movies diffused the myths of the American West around the world. In John Ford’s classic film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaper editor declares: “This is the West. When the legend becomes a fact, print the legend”. Oklahoma City, home to a Cowboy Hall of Fame, now has the First Americans Museum to recount a very different history. The name acknowledges the fact that Native Americans were stewards of this land for millennia before it was seized and exploited by settlers of European ancestry in the 19th century. Forcibly driven from their ancestral homelands following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, they are now claiming their right to be heard. This museum marks an important step on that path.

The design partnership of Scott Johnson and William Fain, in association with the local firm of Hornbeek Blatt and landscape architects Hargreaves Jones, was one of three teams invited by the Oklahoma Secretary of Commerce to develop a master plan. Once selected, they spent four years formulating a program, working with representatives of 39 Oklahoma tribes, and Donald Fixico, an expert consultant who has written a dozen books on tribal culture. He explained that Native Americans regard the earth as sacred, not as a commodity, and view the universe as a holistic combination of forces and elements moving in a circular fashion, in contrast to the linear thinking of westerners. That concept generated a design that is rooted in the earth and ascends in a spiral to the heavens.

After a long search for an appropriate site, tribal elders selected a 112-ha expanse of woodland and plain bordering the Oklahoma River. Burial mounds were a common feature in tribal cultures, and it was considered prudent to raise the buildings above...

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