Treaties and Removal Exhibit

This past July, the Choctaw Cultural Center had its 2nd anniversary. The Choctaw Cultural Center is dedicated to exploring, preserving, and showcasing the culture and history of the Choctaw people. The exhibits are immersive and told from the Choctaw perspective – honoring the physical and spiritual journey of the Choctaw people, the “Chahta Nowvt Aya.” Of the four permanent exhibits, the third is the Treaties and Removal Exhibit. This presentation introduces the Treaties and Removal exhibit, examines the historical research and community engagement involved in the exhibit planning, and some exciting future possibilities for the exhibit. To plan your visit, please look at the Choctaw Cultural Center website at choctawculturalcenter.com.

So my name is Ryan Spring. Next month I’ll be working for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Historic Preservation Department for 12 years. It’s been a wild ride since Sue decided to take a gamble on me. I started off as a GIS specialist, so my background was in mapping. Then after a few years of doing that, from 2016 to 2020, I was the Director of Historic Preservation. I realized I didn’t like dealing with people’s personal problems, so I stepped down and became an archaeological technician for a couple of years. I’ve been studying under archaeologists for a while and learning archaeology, and I loved it. Then one of our researchers left to become an associate professor at Northwestern in Chicago. I took her job back in November or December of last year, doing research, talks, history articles, and trying to get information from our department to our community. It’s great to get all this information, but if you’re not giving it to the people that need it, then you’re doing a disservice to your communities. You have to get that information out to the people in a way that they can understand. As you all know, history is complex. It’s not cut and dry. You can’t just say, “Well, this happened and this happened and this happened,” because there are always all these little hurdles along the way. But all that context inside history is what makes it important and helps define the people that come from that history.

It’s nine o’clock. I’m done rambling. Set my timer because I know how I am. It’s going to be hard holding this up to my face. Hold on like this. Okie dokie.

Today I wanted to come and talk to you about a subject that I’m not an expert on. In 2021, our Choctaw Cultural Center opened in Durant, Oklahoma, and our department, the Historic Preservation Department, is housed there. The cultural center is a wonderful thing, and I’ll explain that a little bit. Our role was to do a lot of the background research and the information that went into the text for the panels and all the background research for the planning of the cultural center. I’ll go into that and talk about it a little bit. I don’t want to give away everything because I want you all to come and see this beautiful cultural center. But I want to talk about the cultural center, the Trail of Tears exhibit that we did, and the planning that went into that exhibit. When you come and see it, you’ll have a stronger understanding of all the work that went into it. I’ll also talk about the initiatives we have in the future for that exhibit.

With me today is Claire Young. Claire couldn’t make it to the conference. She tried and tried, but she had a temporary exhibit to take down and a new exhibit to put up. She is our researcher, Claire Green Young, or Cecilia Claire Green Young. She’s got four names but goes by Claire Young. She’s a very impressive young woman. She got the tribe’s first Choctaw Irish scholarship and did a year abroad in Ireland. She’s an amazing individual from McCurtain County, one of our traditional and oldest counties. She’s going to have a very bright future ahead of her. I’m glad to be able to steal her thunder today. She’s amazing.

The Choctaw Cultural Center has been a labor of love, resulting from many years of hard work and dedication by the Choctaw Nation and its people. A special cultural committee went on a fact-finding tour of over 30 tribal museums and cultural centers across the United States. This study helped inform the decisions that led to the design and creation of the Choctaw Cultural Center. Surveys from over 2,000 tribal members ensured the cultural center represented and aligned with the needs of the Choctaw community.

Centered in this photo with the big pair of scissors is Sue Folsom. She’s had a dream for a cultural center for over two decades. She has guided the tribe in this dream, helping plan, create, and open the Choctaw Cultural Center. This cultural center wouldn’t be here, and we wouldn’t have the positive impact on our community today if it wasn’t for Sue. I really want to appreciate and acknowledge her. You can clap; it’s okay.

The Choctaw Cultural Center is located on over 100 acres in our reservation in Southeastern Oklahoma, on natural tallgrass prairie that has never been plowed. The reason we created the Choctaw Cultural Center is to honor the generations of Choctaw people and their stories. The name of the permanent exhibition is Chahta Nowvt Aya, or the Choctaw Journey. This name is also used for the permanent exhibition. There are four exhibits within this exhibition. Both the permanent and changing exhibits highlight Choctaw history, culture, and life ways through stories of the past, cultural awakenings of the present, and paths into the future. The Choctaw Cultural Center is a spiritual experience open to anyone who wants to learn the Choctaw tenets of faith, family, and culture.

The cultural center encompasses over 100,000 square feet and houses two exhibit galleries, a children’s learning area, seven classrooms, a collection storage area, a 200-seat theater, a gift shop, and a cafe. The exterior has a stickball field where we have tournaments throughout the year, a living village, and a traditional earthwork mound with a walking trail.

Here’s the entrance to the cultural center. The permanent exhibits were designed to be experiential rather than text-focused. We wanted tribal members to experience the cultural center, so as they keep coming back, there are all these nuanced things. As a non-tribal member, you may miss them, but as a tribal member, you’ll see something and feel more comfortable because it’s part of your culture and family events. This facility is for our tribal members by our tribal members.

Visitors are immersed in four different landscapes that tell over 14,000 years of our story in our own words. Within these landscapes, we have lifecasts of our community members. You can recognize people, and it’s cool how they did these lifecasts. All these figures are wearing traditional Choctaw clothing and objects made by over 40 Choctaw artists. Many of these objects haven’t been made in over two centuries. For example, a young woman in our department has been revitalizing Choctaw textiles, and the cultural center wants to do some updates to preserve these textiles. The artists that made these textiles have improved their skills, making it a good problem to have.

Beyond the exhibits, guests can participate in various classrooms, lessons, lectures, programs, and demonstrations covering aspects of Choctaw history, song, dance, art, and ecology. The cafe, Champuli, means good or delicious in Choctaw and is highly recommended. The Hashi gift store, named after the Choctaw word for sun and moon, offers various items. The theater accommodates over 200 guests and shows indigenous films and features.

The Choctaw Living Village honors the Choctaw earthwork and mound traditions. Guests can walk near or around the mound, explore dwellings, and interact with educators. The mound is 1.5 times the size of our mother mound, Nanih Waiya. The mound builders had a very complex soil engineering process, making their mounds more durable than modern ones.

The Loy Activity Center, featuring children’s sized Choctaw dwellings and an immersive mini-forest, is a key component. Sue Folsom had a dream of a giant turtle, which is now part of the center. The turtle is a storytelling room, acoustically tuned for storytelling. The changing exhibit gallery is designed for in-house exhibits, traveling exhibits, and loaned objects. The classrooms offer a chance to learn in greater detail.

The collections and archives area provides a state-of-the-art space for Choctaw artifacts and archival items. The collections area provides a safe place for rehousing, long-term loans, scholarly study, and exhibition display.

Lastly, I want to talk about the most remarkable object in the Trail of Tears exhibit: the Pipe of Peace. This limestone effigy pipe, dated between 900 to 1600 AD, was used by Chief Greenwood Leflore during the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek negotiations. The pipe,

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