Despite the number of people who have tried to explain the concept of Native American nations to me, I’m consistently confused. How are these nations different than what’s going on in the states in which they’re located? Why do we use American money in them? Who oversees judicial matters, and what happens if something happens in a sovereign nation between two non-Native Americans?
As convoluted as the whole concept still seems to me, I’ve finally come to one important conclusion: The most important thing to realize is that the Native American nations in the United States are really, at their most basic level, communities of people with a shared culture and history.
When we drove over the border into the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, there was nothing different about the appearance of the landscape. People wore the same clothing inside the nation as they did in Oklahoma City. There was nothing remarkable about our entrance into the Chickasaw Nation, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything remarkable to find there.
I quickly learned that the Chickasaw people are progressive, adept at adopting those things going on outside the official borders while still holding on to those ideas, concepts and traditions that set them apart from others. The Chickasaw Cultural Center, located about an hour from Oklahoma City by car, is a state-of-the-art, multi-building facility with several purposes, most notably to capture the essence of the Chickasaw culture, preserve and protect the Chicksaw history through extensive research and archives, and share Chickasaw culture with those like myself who are unfamiliar with it.
There are several components of the Chickasaw Cultural Center. The exhibit center is really the heart of the educational foundation. It houses an orientation film, several exhibits that explain how the Chickasaw came to settle in Oklahoma, native artifacts and artwork, information on dances and music sacred to the Chickasaw people, and an introduction into the people who lead the Chickasaw Nation today.
The traditional village has several structures that represent how the Chickasaw have lived. Summer houses, winter houses, a council house … Apparently there are also dances, cultural festivals and traditional game demonstrations in this area too, but when we visited there wasn’t anything going on here, so I’m not sure how lively it gets.
My favorite part of the visit to the Chickasaw Cultural Center was the theater. Community members are invited to watch movies and participate in workshops. While I was there, several members of the Chickasaw Nation performed a series of traditional dances on stage—hypnotic, rhythmic, steady. On their last dance, I joined the performers and shuffled my feet through a series of steps.
If you make it to the Chickasaw Cultural Center, keep your eye open for its logo, which is scattered in pieces throughout the site. The logo is made up of three components: The spiral symbolizes the wind, depicting life’s journey from birth to the afterlife. The sacred eye represents the all-seeing eye and how the Chickasaw observe the world. The sun is an ancient symbol that signifies rebirth or renewal. Look up and you’ll see the patterns in the light fixtures; look down and you’ll see them in the floor tiles.
The Chickasaw Cultural Center is unlike any other site I’ve visited—almost a private peek into a way of life that I was granted special access to. It’s colorful and simple, integrated with its surroundings and yet something to embrace and consider in the complex web of nations within nations.
867 Charles Cooper Memorial Road, Sulphur, Oklahoma | Website
My visit to the Chickasaw Cultural Center was provided by the Oklahoma Tourism Board, but all opinions are my own.