New curator discusses approach to shaping exhibitions
OKLAHOMA CITY — It would be easy to argue that the process of completing the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum proposed for Oklahoma City has been arduous.
Funding issues along with that of investment balance between the tribes and state, as well as a transfer of oversight have all come into play since the project’s conception in 1994.
Senior Curator Heather Ahtone, who started with AICCM earlier this year deferred to Executive Director James Pepper Henry (Kaw/Muscogee (Creek)) on the specifics but said she has been assured of progress.
“That construction will resume this fall. We are looking at a spring 2021 opening date and that there is a unique partnership currently forged to support both the opening and operation of the museum but also a commitment to making the museum an important part of the cultural fabric of the state in concert with the tribes,” she said in a ‘Mvskoke Radio’ interview with Gary Fife.
Ahtone said this was told to her as she focused on her work, which has largely centered on shaping the exhibitions and has taken her on several trips to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., to look into articles for a gallery called ‘Life of an Object.’
“Many of these things have not been with their people or provided to have an opportunity to have their stories told in over a century,” she said.
Ahtone said one of the goals of this gallery is to have tribes tell the story of their communities and things that are important to them in lieu of misrepresentation that often occurs when items are placed in other museums.
She said tribes had a particular focus on making their creations visually appealing in a manner that often had a deeper meaning.
“So these objects are just as much about them being beautiful as they were reiterating our place in the world and the way we think about things,” she said. “And even the use of a particular type of blue could really emote a lot of information for people who recognize that.”
Ahtone said the purpose of Native art and tribal connection to objects have largely changed with the onset of a capitalist economy as art has become a profession and these items have simply taken on a functional purpose.
“I think that they have to be recognized and honored as being able to carry forward the aesthetic values as many of us have moved away from having hand-woven baskets as our primary containers in exchange for the easiest accessibility of some kind of a plastic container,” she said.
Ahtone said the largest exhibition will be the ‘Tribal Nations Gallery,’ intended to tell the story of tribes coming to Oklahoma.
“It’s a commitment we’ve all made at the cultural center, recognizing the 39 tribes in Oklahoma,” she said. “Really, there’s an equity in how we’re dealing with exhibitions, as far as we actually have a document for our gallery that shows how many stories are being told about each tribe.”
She said the cultures actually have a bearing on how much of an empirical record is available to present for each nation.
“Documented history is more acceptable but that doesn’t make our work any easier or harder, we simply seek out the stories that exist and certainly, we are looking to the tribes to help support how they want those stories to be told,” Ahtone said.
Regarding her own culture, Ahtone is a Chickasaw Nation citizen of Choctaw descent.
“I was raised in the Carnegie area and my grandparents were Henry Ahtone and Lucile Ahtone, and Henry Ahtone was my grandmother’s second husband so I’m not Kiowa but it’s the place where I find my family and the place where it feels like home,” she said.
Ahtone said her mother lives in the Byng area near the Chickasaw community and that she traveled her around extensively as a child taking up residence in several places along the west coast.
“That experience gave me access to thinking about the world and getting to know many different kinds of tribal people, different tribes in those areas but also other kinds of cultural communities,” she said.
Ahtone’s studies took her to the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe where she met her husband and received a creative writing degree.
They decided to move to Oklahoma and she attended the University of Oklahoma and has held variety of positions along the way.
“I have completed a degree in printmaking at OU and then a master’s in art history and then not too long ago, a Ph.D. degree in the interdisciplinary studies of art history, anthropology and Native American studies, clearly seeking a way to speak about Indian art in a way that’s meaningful to us and also to the rest of the world,” she said.