- ABOUT US
More than a museum, the expansive Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur celebrates a tribe in full.
By KARLIE TIPTON
Driving to Sulphur to visit the Chickasaw Cultural Center, I expected to see all the usual inventory of museums: paintings, artifacts, and exhibits. Instead, what I discovered was a living community brimming with the history of the Chickasaw people.
The $45 million, 109-acre property, opened in July 2010, consists of native grasses and buildings made of stone, wood, and copper, materials important to the Chickasaws for their close relationship to the land in southern Oklahoma. Carvings in the stone include spirals, a symbol for wind and life’s journey; the sacred eye, representing “the one who sits above”; and the sun, which stands for rebirth and renewal.
Shortly after I arrived, a shout and a rattle from the amphitheater caught my attention—the daily performance of the stomp dancers.
“The stomp dance is one of our most ancient forms of cultural expression,” says Amanda Cobb-Greetham, administrator of the center’s division of history and culture. “It’s a way for the community to gather.”
Dressed in traditional garb, the women dancers kept the beat by shaking the turtle shells on their legs while the men sang an ancient ceremonial song.
“It’s hard to understand the ways of the Chickasaw people when you just read about them,” says Jeremy Wayne Wallace, the center’s cultural instructor. “When we do demonstrations like the stomp dances, you really get a feel for what it was like when tribes lived in traditional villages.”
Not far from the centrally located amphitheater is an overlook called the Sky Pavilion, where visitors can view a traditional Chickasaw Inchokka’, or village, from three stories up.
Inside each of the six buildings of the inchokka’, I could almost smell the fire burning in the winter home, or hashtola’ chokka’, and hear the vital discussions taking place at the council house, or aa-anompoli’ chokka’.
During the five years it took to design and build the center, architects—from the Oklahoma City firm of Frankfurt-Short-Bruza—and designers took care to ensure that visitors could experience a traditional nineteenth-century Chickasaw village in Mississippi as accurately as possible.
“We worked with the architects to make sure that they understood what a village would have looked like and what the reasons were behind each and every aspect of the buildings,” says Valorie Walters, general manager of operations.
The next item on my tour of the Chickasaw Cultural Center was to learn the history of the tribe’s people.
The Chikasha Poya Exhibit Center (Chikasha poya translates to “We are Chickasaw”) traces a journey through the forests of the Chickasaws’ homelands in Mississippi as they first encountered European explorers and culminates in the tribe’s 1837 path along the Trail of Tears to southern Oklahoma.
Along the way, I was introduced to every aspect of the tribe’s culture, from clothing and food to education and law. Every nook and cranny of the exhibit hall presented something to see and touch and hear.
“At the language stations, for instance, you don’t just hear the Chickasaw language, but you can practice speaking it,” Cobb-Greetham says. “We don’t want people just to look at things. We want them to participate and share in the Chickasaw culture.”
Upon leaving the event center, I realized there was one aspect of the native peoples I had not experienced: their food.
Luckily, the Aaimpa’ Café, or “place to eat,” is full of Chickasaw goodies. After dining on a delicious Indian taco; pishofa, a dish similar to hominy; and an order of grape dumplings, it was time for my journey to come to an end.
As I drove away from the Chickasaw Cultural Center, I felt I was saying goodbye to a time and culture from which I still had a great deal to learn.
Get There: The Chickasaw Cultural Center is located at 867 Charles Cooper Memorial Road in Sulphur. (580) 622-7130 or chickasawculturalcenter.com.