Injustice Persists

Image of American Indian Cultural Center and Museum

The unfinished American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City is fast becoming a symbol of bigotry and right-wing political incompetence as the entire world witnesses the spectacle.

The fact that it hasn’t been completed is a massive embarrassment. State lawmakers, especially House Speaker Jeff Hickman, a Republican from Fairview, are still haggling and posturing over how to come up with $40 million in state money to complete the project. Right now, Hickman is stubbornly refusing to bring a Senate-passed bill that would fund the center to a vote because he says it doesn’t have enough Republican support.

The massive delay in completing the center conjures up the sordid history of government-sanctioned discrimination against American Indians in this country. It’s a history of bigotry, terrible injustice and broken promises. Some people might argue that’s too extreme in this case, but what if the center never gets finished? What if the dominant white conservative majority in the House manages to stop it without even a vote?

Indian tribes have donated to the project, and private donors will match the state’s $40 million, but this is a state-owned facility, and the state needs to make good on its promise for the tribes and for everyone in the state. Construction on the project started way back in 2006 and had to be halted because of funding problems. Now is the time to finish it or come up with a different plan. Maybe it needs to be built in another state, one with people more tolerant of diversity and more appreciative of history.

There’s no question the approximately $150 million center will be a world-class facility, based on Smithsonian standards, which will attract visitors from throughout the world. It’s being built along the Oklahoma River near downtown Oklahoma City. Tourist dollars, which generate tax revenues, will pay for the facility in years to come. It will give some much-needed gravitas and intellectualism to Oklahoma City’s so-called renaissance. Cities and states just don’t open world-renowned museums on a regular basis.

Those are the undisputed sound financial and tourism reasons for completing the project, but the main reason it should be completed is to honor and embrace the rich American Indian history and culture of this country. It’s not even anything close to reparation for past injustices inflicted by white colonizers, but it does allow the stories about those injustices to be repeated and learned by future generations.

Oklahoma, previously known as Indian Territory, seems like the perfect geographical and historical spot for the center, but perhaps its current and intolerant conservative political alignment makes it impossible.

The bill to fund the center would get the $40 million from the state’s unclaimed property fund. The Senate and a House committee have passed the bill and Gov. Mary Fallin said she supports it. Hickman, however, wants at least 51 out of 71 Republicans in the House to support bill. According to one estimate, there are enough votes among all House members to pass the measure right now. All the chamber’s 29 Democrats favor the bill, along with many Republicans, but Hickman says he won’t budge.

So the broken promises and injustices continue.