'A place that joins and binds all of us': Chickasaw Cultural Center celebrates 10 years

Sierra Rains
The Daily Ardmoreite
Individuals dance together during an event at the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur. The Chickasaw Cultural Center virtually celebrated its 10th anniversary on Friday, July 24. Several Chickasaw leaders and citizens reminisced about the history of the center and what it has come to mean to them.

Thousands of Chickasaw citizens have contributed to the Chickasaw Cultural Center over the years, making the campus in Sulphur the core of the spirit of the Chickasaw people. Over the past 10 years, the Chickasaw people have shared their stories and culture with over 850,000 visitors from across the world. 

Though the center has been temporarily closed due to COVID-19, several Chickasaw citizens and leaders joined together on July 24 to virtually celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Chickasaw Cultural Center. 

“What does it mean that the celebration is virtual? It means that this place is not just a place in the ground. It means that it’s bigger and a place that lives in our hearts, and is a place that joins and binds all of us,” said Amanda Cobb-Greetham, a Chickasaw citizen and the former administrator of the Chickasaw division of history and culture. 

The Chickasaw Cultural Center began as an idea in the 1960s. Cobb-Greetham said Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby wanted to invest in the cultural health of the Chickasaw people, to revitalize and preserve Chickasaw history and culture. “It is that cultural health that will enable our continuance,” she said. 

Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby speaks during a virtual celebration for the 10th anniversary of the Chickasaw Cultural Center on July 24.

In October, 2000, more than 1,200 Chickasaw citizens responded to a survey that asked for comments and suggestions regarding the creation of a Chickasaw Cultural Center. Governor Bill Anoatubby said language, beliefs, history and customs were among the most desired aspects of the center. 

Art, music, food, medicine, prominent Chickasaw men and women, and a living village with traditional dwellings were also mentioned — all things that have come to fruition over the years. 

Ground was broken on a 96 acre site across from the Chickasaw National Recreation Area in September 2004. This was just two days after the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation authorizing a land exchange among the Chickasaw Nation, the city of Sulphur and the National Park Service, Anoatubby said. 

An aerial view of the Chickasaw Cultural Center.

The buildings at the Chickasaw Cultural Center were designed to blend into the landscape, said Keith Welsh, director of facilities and maintenance for the Chickasaw Cultural Center. The four original buildings, including a welcome center, theater and cafe, and exhibit center and center for history and culture, were built from natural elements including wood, copper and stone. 

Plants that are native to the Chickasaws’ historic homeland were also incorporated in the landscaping. Thalia Miller, the director of horticulture at the Chickasaw Cultural Center, said the horticulture team traveled to Mississippi to acquire native plants from the Chickasaw heritage preservation team. 

The plants were planted throughout the campus, including a space for gardening traditional crops and a butterfly garden dedicated to the preservation of monarch butterflies. 

Individuals take part in mound gardening at the Chickasaw Cultural Center.

“This place is like no other center in the world,” Welsh said. “This center displays so much of a tie to mother nature and the world around us— a place of living, breathing, ever-changing experience and learning. A worldwide destination that continues to grow year after year.”

Built on the ideas, imagination and creativity of Chickasaws from all walks of life, the Chickasaw Cultural Center opened on July 24, 2010. “When our cultural center opened 10 years ago it was the realization of a long-held dream,” Anoatubby said. 

After the center opened, it continued to grow. The campus expanded in size with an additional 75 acres, including a new pond, sky bridge, water pavilion and bridge allowing passage from the Chickasaw Cultural Center into the Chickasaw National Recreation Area. The center now also includes the faces of those inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame. 

Chickasaw leaders meet with individuals from the National Parks Service after opening a bridge connecting the Chickasaw Cultural Center and the Chickasaw National Recreation Area.

“The Chickasaw Cultural Center offers visitors the opportunity to learn and connect with Chickasaw history and culture, and watch the story of the Chickasaw people unfold through powerful performances, reenactments, demonstrations, collections and exhibits,” Anoatubby said. 

Events drawing thousands of people from across the world have been traditionally held at the Chickasaw Cultural Center each year. Some of these include the three sisters celebration held in early spring, the native creativity fashion show held in early summer and an native american heritage day event in late fall. 

Also a powerful display of Chickasaw culture, is the art that resides throughout the campus. Several Chickasaw artists took a moment to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the center on Friday, with one artist referring to the center as “the crown jewel” for the Chickasaw Nation. 

A Chickasaw elder says a prayer in the Chickasaw native language during a celebration in honor of the Chickasaw Cultural Center's 10th anniversary on July 24.

“The Chickasaw Cultural Center has been a tremendous blessing, not only to me, but to other artists,” said Daniel Wincester. “We’ve been able to not only showcase our art, but to present our art, as well as our culture to thousands and thousands of visitors. Not just our Chickasaw citizens, but internationally.”

Several statues representing different aspects of Chickasaw culture are located throughout the campus. A nine foot tall bronze statute depicts the arrival of the Chickasaw people to indian territory after they were forced to leave their ancestral homeland, said Marcus Milligan, the executive officer for the Chickasaw Cultural Center.

“As our Chickasaw ancestors look towards the future, the arrival statute depicts a new beginning, but also implies that we never forget our past,” Milligan said. Chickasaw citizens were used as models for the statue, as were Chickasaw elders interviewed and painted for a collection of art at the center depicting their essences. 

The Chickasaw Cultural Center offers also Chickasaw citizens a place to learn about their ancestors, with a wide collection of historical documents, texts, artifacts and more. Kent Smith said he had been aware of his Chickasaw ancestry for all his life, but it wasn’t until 10 years ago that he was afforded the opportunity to learn about Chickasaw history, tradition and culture. 

The arrival statue at the Chickasaw Cultural Center depicts the arrival of the Chickasaw people to indian territory after they were forced to leave their ancestral homeland.

“If this place wasn’t here I would really be distraught because this place has become more than just a building, more than just a tourist place, but it is something that means a whole lot more-- it’s home for Chickasaw people,” said Ladonna Brown, the director of research and cultural interpretation for the Chickasaw Nation. 

Cobb-Greetham recalled the opening of the Chickasaw Cultural Center, stating that the thing that struck her the most was the people. Hundreds of Chickasaw citizens came together, each with a different talent or role to contribute, and made the center into something greater than just a few buildings, she said. 

“It wasn’t just these buildings and a campus, it was more than that,” Cobb-Greetham said. “We call it a cultural center, but sometimes I think we have to pause and think what that really means. It means that we created a place that is the center of our living Chickasaw culture and is a center for our living and active, and oh, so dynamic, Chickasaw people.”