NORMAN — Internationally-recognized Native American artist and longtime Oklahoma legislator Enoch Kelly Haney moved from Seminole to Norman a few years ago. He figured it was the only way he’d stay away from state and tribal politics.
“If I stayed in Seminole I’ll run for dog catcher or something,” he said. “I’ve retired from being a politician but not from life.”
As a young Oklahoma City University student Haney heard the call to build a Native American cultural center in Oklahoma. Artifacts and cultural treasures were being lost and were taken to museums in other states and to Washington, D.C.
“A woman whom I considered elderly then but she probably wasn’t much older than I am now said, ‘Kelly, build us a cultural center.’”
That was in November of 1962. Now, more than 50 years later, Haney is optimistic that idea could become reality in the not so distant future.
“I really think it’s going to happen,” he told local Democrats Friday afternoon. “Had the tornado not hit Moore, we would have got that appropriation.”
The $40 million in state funds sought to finish the half-completed American Indian Cultural Center and Museum along the Oklahoma River at I-35 and I-40 in Oklahoma City was to be matched by $40 million in private funding. The site was formerly home to 50 oil wells.
Haney said it’s not a Republican or Democrat issue. It’s an Oklahoma issue. Tribes have already contributed to the effort, he said. The state has been home to 67 tribes with 39 currently active here.
Today, the 125,000 square foot facility is an inactive construction site, fenced and guarded around the clock. It would be a place where tribes can tell their own stories, from ancient times, to relocation to the transformation into the current economic engines driving much of Oklahoma’s progress today.
Organizers expect the center to generate $3.8 billion in economic impact over the next 20 years. Local and state tax revenue projections top $325 million over the same period.
“We’re not just talking about a statewide attraction. This is more regional and worldwide,” Haney said, extolling the economic benefits of the center. “It’s a good investment. This is the only project that money will be appropriated for that will generate a return.”
Cultural center staff member Stacy Halfmoon thinks the possibilities for the facility are endless. Cooperative agreements with other state museums and the Smithsonian Institution will provide a breadth of experience.
They plan to borrow about 150 objects — many of which originated in Oklahoma — from the Smithsonian for an opening exhibit. Walls with 100,000 stones will represent those Native Americans relocated here.
She envisions festivals and celebrations on the site which will eventually include a retail center, landscaped park and trails, a courtyard of nations, welcome center, three galleries, children’s discovery center, cafe and research center.
But it’s hard to schedule and plan with a half-finished building.
“We’re doing OK but we would definitely prefer to be up and running and open,” she said. “It all hinges on that funding. If we could just get the funding and move forward, it will all come together.”