As the sun slowly dipped down toward the horizon on the winter solstice in December, a small hump of grass in a field close to the eastern border of Oklahoma was the focus of my attention. Hundreds of years ago, this same field would have been filled with the writhing bodies of an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 prehistoric Native American revelers who were honoring the shortest day of the year. That small hump was one of the 12 mounds built by the Spiro people in Oklahoma.
It’s just one of the many places to experience Native American history in Oklahoma.
The Spiro people in Oklahoma were part of the massive Mississippian culture that was as sophisticated and as large as other prehistoric empires like the Inca and the Mayan cultures.
The Spiro site in Oklahoma was among the largest political, trade, and power centers of the Mississippian culture, and nearly 10,000 people lived in Spiro from 800 A.D. to 1480 A.D.
The Spiro people built 12 ceremonial and house mounds and one burial mound. That burial mound remained untouched until the 1930s, when looters discovered the treasures hidden within it. What followed was the largest and longest period of looting in American history before federal law protected the site.
Like those ancient Spiro people, I was honoring the winter solstice in my own way by taking a solstice walk with Dennis Peterson, the director of the Spiro Mounds Archeological Center. I was there to learn about the history of these forgotten people.
I grew up in Oklahoma, and Native American history and culture have always been woven into the identity of the state. In addition to the Caddo and Wichita tribes, who already claimed Oklahoma as home, thousands of Native Americans were displaced and forced to Indian Territory -- what Oklahoma was called before statehood -- during the Indian Removal Act.
Today, 39 tribes call Oklahoma home, and Oklahoma has the third-largest number of tribes behind Alaska and California. The tribes and the state also have some of the most impressive museums, cultural centers, and exhibits that celebrate and honor the rich heritage of the Native peoples.
Here are six places to experience Native American history in Oklahoma.
1. Spiro Mounds Archeological Center, Spiro
Located roughly three hours west of Oklahoma City, The Spiro Mounds Archeological Center is the only prehistoric American Indian archaeological site in Oklahoma open to the public.
The site includes a nice museum with interpretive exhibits, an introductory slide show, examples of the art and artifacts that were discovered in Spiro, and a small gift shop. Two miles of easy trails weave along the 12 mounds at the site, and the staff archeologist leads tours that delve deeply into how the Spiro people lived.
Special tours of the site are offered during the solstices and equinoxes and are advertised on the website. These tours tend to be very popular, so arrive early. If you go, be sure to wear sturdy shoes, and expect the tours to run two hours or longer. Bring lots of water if visiting during the summer.
The Spiro Mounds Archeological Center is open Wednesdays through Sundays.
Pro Tip: If you visit before May 6, be sure to make The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum a stop on your trip. The museum is hosting a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition called “Spiro and the Art of the Mississippian World,” the first major museum exhibition on the Spiro Mounds, and possibly the last. It brings together the extraordinary objects that were found at the Spiro site that haven’t been seen together since the looting during the 1930s and ‘40s.
2. Chickasaw Cultural Center, Sulphur
Located in the heart of the Chickasaw Nation, the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur serves as the cultural, historical, and educational heart of the Chickasaw people.
Ten years in the making, the cultural center hosts reenactments, performances, historical collections, exhibits, classes, and special events. It is one of the most extensive tribal cultural centers in the United States.
The campus grounds also include the Aaholiitobli' ("a place to honor") Honor Garden of native plants that honor the Chickasaw leaders, elders, and warriors; the Kochcha' Aabiniili' (“a place for sitting outside”) Amphitheater; and the Aba' Aanowa' (“a place for walking above”) Sky Pavilion, which offers a 40-foot birds’ eye view of the Chikasha Inchokka' Traditional Village and the surrounding Chickasaw National Recreation Area.
From traditional Native American celebrations to cooking demonstrations and storytelling, the Chickasaw Cultural Center is among the most intensive and impressive educational centers in Oklahoma and the U.S.
Pro Tip: Currently, the Chickasaw Cultural Center remains closed due to COVID concerns, but it hosts numerous virtual events, demonstrations, and educational events through its website.
3. Cherokee Heritage Center, Tahlequah
In eastern Oklahoma, the Cherokee Heritage Center near Tahlequah is home to a stunning Trail of Tears exhibit. Told through artwork and historic accounting in six galleries, this exhibit tells of the forced removal of Cherokee ancestors from their indigenous lands in the southeastern U.S. to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.
The center also features a 1710 Cherokee Village called Diligwa; the Cherokee National Museum; Adams Corner; and special exhibits and events. The center’s Cherokee National Archives house an impressive collection of important Cherokee historical records, including 167 manuscripts, 579 historic photographs, and 832 audio holdings.
Like many museums, the center is closed currently due to COVID, but vaccine rollouts in the Native American community may see the center open later this year.
4. Choctaw Nation Museum, Tuskahoma
In the Fourche Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma, Tuskahoma is the site of the newly-restored Choctaw Nation Museum, which was the original 1884 capitol building for the Choctaw Nation. The museum has a lovely collection of Choctaw art, exhibits, and artifacts, and it tells the heartbreaking story of Choctaw removal from Native lands.
The Museum also honors the World War I and II Choctaw Code Talkers with a Memorial Exhibit and a five-acre lawn where Choctaw Stickball, Choctaw weddings, and the inter-tribal pow-wows are held.
Pro Tip: During Labor Day weekend, the Choctaw Nation Museum holds the Labor Day Festival and Inter-Tribal Pow-Wow, which is open to the public and well worth a visit. Though canceled in 2020, the Choctaw Nation is considering the possibility of holding the festival in 2021.
5. Sam Noble Museum Of Natural History, Norman
In a unique collection, the Sam Noble Museum in Norman houses one of the most impressive exhibits of Native American languages. Intended to be a resource for community members, scholars, researchers, and students, the Native American Languages collection holds books, video recordings, audio recordings, journals, lesson plans, and more from more than 175 Native North American languages.
The collection serves Oklahoma’s Native American communities while spreading the importance of preserving Native American languages and cultures. The curators and museum also host the Breath of Life workshop and the annual Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair so visitors can develop an awareness, appreciation, and understanding of Native American languages.
Pro Tip: The Sam Noble Museum closed during 2020 due to COVID, but will reopen to the public on May 11.
6. Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee
The Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee tells the story of the art, culture, and history of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek, and Cherokee tribes, which were known as The Five Civilized Tribes. These tribes were displaced to Indian Territory through the Indian Removal Act. Called the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands was a dark chapter in the history of Oklahoma’s tribes.
This museum features ever-changing exhibits and historic artifacts from the permanent collection. Traditional art produced by artists of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole fill the gallery walls, and the museum also has the world’s largest collection of Jerome Tiger originals, including Stickballer, his only major sculpture, which is on permanent display in the gallery.
These six locations are shining examples of Native American culture and history in Oklahoma but are far from the only sites where you can learn about these topics in the state. From art museums like the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa and Woolaroc in Bartlesville to the Red Earth Art Center and Festival in Oklahoma City, as well as dozens of smaller Native American cultural centers throughout the state, Oklahoma is full of opportunities to connect and learn more about Native American culture.