Finish It

Image of graphic related to American Indian Cultural Center and Museum

Does the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City remain unfinished mainly because of the long, sordid history of discrimination against indigenous people in this country?

It’s time to start seriously asking that question.

I’m sure the lawmakers, primarily Republicans, who refuse to complete the project by funding it would disagree and refer to the intricacies and quirks of the political process, but there the unfinished project sits, right off Interstate 40 in downtown Oklahoma, stalled since 2012.

It’s not difficult to view the project as a small gesture of reparation from the country’s dominant white culture, which removed native people from their lands and killed many of them in the process. Under this frame, the fact the project remains unfinished because the state government won’t fund it is yet another instance of institutionalized bigotry and the enduring legacy of European colonization of what became the United States. Would this be happening to a project depicting the history, lives and achievements of any particular group of people who identify as white and have ancestral ties to colonizers? That’s a question no one seems to want to ask.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman, according to a recent story, doesn’t seem hopeful the state legislature next session can come up with the $40 million needed to help finish the project. Some leaders are even discussing handing the project off to Oklahoma City. If that needs to happen for the project to be completed, then so be it. Right now, the unfinished project serves as a perfect symbol for the current dominant Republican majority at the state Capitol, which spends much of its time passing frivolous legislation while leaving major issues unresolved.

Hickman argues that legislators outside of Oklahoma City have their own priorities, which apparently doesn’t include the cultural center. The problems with that argument are enormous. Here they are: (1) Everyone in the state will benefit from the center because of its educational value alone. Just imagine, for example, all the school field trips it would generate. (2) It is centrally located in the state, which ensures easy access for everyone in Oklahoma. (3) It will generate more revenue in its current location than if it were located in, say, Enid or Woodward. (4) If it’s a state project, then, philosophically speaking, it belongs to everyone in the state, not just to Oklahoma City residents. This is an important distinction. (5) It’s a major project that will add to the quality of life and should make everyone proud here.

The state has been asked to come up with the $40 million to match $40 million already pledged by private donors. Right now, the unfinished center costs $700,000 to maintain and $5 million in debt service each year, according to the story. That’s a lot of money for something that is fast becoming a symbol of calculated indifference if not blatant bigotry.

The overall cost of the center, which is being built with Smithsonian-type standards, is estimated at $170 million. There’s little doubt it would attract huge crowds from not only across the state and country but also even the world. It will generate its own self-sustaining revenue through ticket sales. It just has to be finished.