Gary Fife/Radio Specialist
Pepper Henry talks progress, more outreach
OKMULGEE, Okla. — It’s been over a year since the first Native American to oversee Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum assumed the director position and James Pepper Henry is working to bring the facility, Tulsa community and local tribes closer together.
Henry is an enrolled citizen of the Kaw tribe and of Muscogee (Creek) heritage. He brings life-long experience in museum work, directing such institutions as the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Anchorage’s Museum at the Rasmusson Center and working at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Henry took some time from his schedule April 13 to speak with ‘Mvskoke Radio’ host Gary Fife about that career and shared some observations on one of Tulsa’s cultural landmarks.
Here are excerpts from that interview.
MR: You’ve been heading up this incredible museum for just over a year now. When I think of the museum’s housing the major collections of American Indian art and history, this is one of the pillars.
Of course, you have the National Museum on the mall in Washington, and there are other collections like the Heard. You were actually connected with those institutions. Now tell me what was that like?
JPH: First of all, it’s a great honor for me to be executive director of the Gilcrease Museum, especially considering the fact that Thomas Gilcrease himself was Muscogee (Creek) Indian.
I’ve been in the museum field for close to 30 years now and when I was coming up through the ranks, interested in working in museums, there weren’t a lot of people of Native heritage working in museums. So, it was a challenge to try and break into the museum field at that point.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to start on a new endeavor back in the 1990s and that was the National Museum of the American Indian. I am one of the few folks out there who that has worked at all the NMAI facilities.
That was a great opportunity for me as a young man to be involved in that project, which is amazing that the National Museum of the American Indian is the only monument to indigenous peoples that is in Washington, D.C.
MR: That’s one way of pointing to the unique relationship between Native Americans and the federal government?
JPH: Absolutely. For so many years, their interpretation of American Indian culture and particularly, material culture was interpreted by non-Natives. In fact, my grandparents, who I grew up with, they wouldn’t even be allowed to go into the museum to see the items associated with their own tribes.
It was only until, probably, the 1980s or the early 1990s that American Indians were actually brought to the table to be a part of the interpretation of their own cultures.
It really was kind of a closed world for American Indians—the museum world.
When you think about it, museums haven’t been happy places for American Indians. It’s a reminder of what we’ve lost, as a people. The spoils of war, the things that have been taken away from us, the things that have been put on display and reinterpreted and misinterpreted.
Only in the last 20 years, have American Indians been invited back and actually taking charge now of the conversation and the content and the interpretation of that content.
That’s why it’s exciting for me to come back to Oklahoma after 20-plus years and be the director of the Gilcrease Museum.
MR: Where are we in that process? Are we still at the starting line? Has that wall cracked?
JPH: We’ve made a lot of progress in the last 20 years. Here at Gilcrease in particular, I know that the museum has made a concerted effort to consult with the cultures that are represented here in this museum. We’re not slowing down.
As we think about the reinterpretation of our collections and of our archive, we certainly will be talking to the other cultures that are involved. Not just the Native, but we’re in North Tulsa, there’s a large African-American community, the race riots happened not too far from here in the 1920s. So, I think we have a real opportunity to tell a much more holistic story of Oklahoma, Tulsa, in particular.
Before, museums had been restricted to people with academic degrees, Ph.D’s, masters’ degrees. Those were the folks that were allowed in the doors to do the research, not people from communities.
That’s all changed now and we invite to them come in and have access to the collection. If somebody of Native descent wants to see items associated with their culture, then all they have to do is give us a call. We’ll make an appointment to get direct access to these items.
MR: I had a friend in Minneapolis who said, ‘Who do think they got it from?’
JPH: Exactly. I remember talking to George Horse Capture years ago, and he said a lot of these researchers would come to the tribes and into the community and wouldn‘t be there for very long searching for knowledge and he said, ‘You know, we didn’t tell them everything.’
MR: Did your heritage play any part in your being selected?
JPH: I like to think that my experience is what got me the job here, almost 30 years in the museum field, working in Native and non-Native museums. But I think the fact that I have family connections here in Tulsa, Oklahoma and my heritage is really here in Oklahoma. I’m sure that had a factor in the selection, having those cultural connections and those family connections here made me much more familiar with Oklahoma.
MR: Do think the museum’s presence and focus and now you being here to direct it has changed the perceptions of Tulsans and Oklahomans about Native People?
JPH: It has at one level and it hasn’t at another level. You can still see and feel some prejudices and some tension there, but so many people now, I know, have Native blood in Oklahoma. So I think things are changing but they haven’t completely changed yet. There are still some barriers that need to be broken down.
It’s still difficult for Native peoples to get to the upper echelons of different kinds of businesses and professions.
There are very few of us of who are directors of museum across the country.
But most of the people who are directors of museums across the country, thinking of Rick West at the Autry Museum and Kevin Gover at the National Museum of the American Indian and Patsy Phillips at the Institute of American Indian Art Museum—all of those folks are from Oklahoma, Oklahoma tribes.
For some reason, Oklahoma is cranking out a lot of museum professionals. I think that’s great.
MR: Have the visitors here understood what’s there before them and do they make the distinctions between the different cultures?
JPH: Oklahoma has such a diverse population of Native peoples, 39 federally recognized tribes. As we think about reimagining Gilcrease Museum and working on a new interpretive plan, I think we can do a much better job of showing the diversity of Native cultures here.
Right now, our display is a little bit antiquated. Our focus, right now, is to show, to articulate to our visitors that Native Americans are still here. A lot of people still have the impression that we are extinct, that we went the way of the buffalo, that we’re stuck in the 19th century.
Our goal is to show the diversity of the tribes in Oklahoma at Gilcrease Museum. But to also show that history from a contemporary perspective, kind of working from the present back, rather than starting from earlier times and moving forward.
I think it’s important to have that message and show our visitors that we’re still here, we have vibrant cultures here in Oklahoma. We often times live in two worlds. We have our Native world, life, ways. Then we have our secular life, ways, trying to fit into two different worlds here.
MR: Has the museum taken it upon itself to work with any tribes on any projects or perhaps on any planning board?
JPH: Well, we have several projects coming up including an exhibition on the arrival of the Cherokee people on the Trail of Tears. That exhibit will open next year. We’re also planning an exhibition on Plains Indians and working with some of the Plains tribes that are here in Oklahoma.
But, as we think of the interpretive plan moving forward, I would like to see all the tribes here in Oklahoma represented in a newly re-envisioned Gilcrease. But, in particular, Tulsa’s an interesting place because you’ve got the convergence of three tribes here. You’ve got the Cherokee Nation, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the Osage Nation and they all kind of intersect right here in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
I think those three tribes should be highlighted because we’re here in that territory. But, certainly the other tribes that are here in Oklahoma will certain have a place in the new Gilcrease Museum.
We had talked about the new American Indian Cultural Center and Museum being constructed in Oklahoma City. Now that pieces are falling into place to finish that project and we wish to have a relationship, a more formal relationship with that museum where we can share exhibitions.
I’ve talked to them about loaning some items that we have here in our collection to that facility which helps advertise Gilcrease Museum in Oklahoma City, but also helps flesh out their exhibits because they don’t have a collection. So I think we can help each other there.
Certainly one of our goals is, certainly to educate our citizens about the rich heritages and I put plural because of not just one heritage, but the richness of our full diversity of our communities with American Indians, the African-American community.
The largest growing community in the Tulsa community is the Latino community and I certainly think that we can be relevant to that community as well.
Really, as you were talking about there was a little bit of an elitist bent to the perception that this was an exclusive club for only a certain group of people. I really want to see the Gilcrease Museum become part of ‘Tulsa’s living room.’
That we are a center for civic engagement, that we are a place for dialogue for showcasing the diversity our community. Also bringing some of the best exhibitions in the world to Tulsa, Oklahoma.
MR: If visitors come in, what sort of displays or items is there on the Muscogee (Creek) people is available here?
JPH: We have quite a few artists represented, Muscogee (Creek) artists represented here at Gilcrease. Jerome Tiger is one of my personal favorites, and we have quite a few artists represented. When I think about tourism, I want people to think of us as a launching point to go a little bit deeper into the story of the tribes here in Oklahoma.
I know, Muscogee (Creek) Nation has been working on restoring the Council House there in Okmulgee. There’s been some efforts to restore the Council House back to its original glory back in the day.
When people come to Gilcrease, I would like to see other opportunities for them to explore the other cultures in the area and advertise what Muscogee (Creek) Nation is doing.
918.732.7643 | GFife@MvskokeMedia.com
An enrolled member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, and of Cherokee heritage, Gary D. Fife is a career veteran of journalism, with nearly 40 years of experience in print, radio and television specializing in Native American affairs. He and his wife co-habit their home with a scottish terrier named Willow.