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The American Indian Cultural Center continues to progress, construction starts on Hall of the People

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Among Oklahoma's Indian tribes, there are many different ways to say "Proud place." But no matter the language chosen, these words are an appropriate description of what Oklahoma City's American Indian Cultural Center and Museum (AICCM) is becoming before our very eyes.

'What is that mound of dirt?'
A landmark in new ways
Site for the site

For the past couple of years, contractors have been making steady progress in building its visitor center and the center's south gallery, which will hold permanent and temporary exhibits, plus its north gallery for the center's theater and café.

In March, work started on the project's signature Hall of the People " a large, glass-enclosed central room framed by steel that will be one of the first things experienced by the cultural center's visiting guests.

The room's vertical support is provided by 10 steel columns, ranging in length from 40 feet on the ends to 90 feet in the room's center. These columns are bound together at their tops by a 320-foot-long rainbow truss.

"The largest column is probably about 16 tons, so it gives you an idea of the mass of steel that is out there," said Gena Timberman, executive director of Oklahoma's Native American Cultural and Education Authority (NACEA), the state agency building the AICCM.

The room's design is inspired by the "structural elegance" of the Wichita grass house. "What we wanted it to evoke is the sense that it is a home," Timberman said.

Functionally, it will be used by the center as a gathering venue for large events, capable of hosting dinners for as many as 300 people.

But its biggest effect will be to inspire awe through its sheer size and design.

It provides the cultural center with an iconic feature " its most visible, besides the earthen promontory that provides a scenic backdrop for the center's Courtyard of Nations.

This will help Oklahomans realize something special is coming to the location, said Kirk Humphreys, a former Oklahoma City mayor who today serves on the NACEA board of directors and the AICCM foundation.

Humphreys compares the coming AICCM in Oklahoma City to the Polynesian Cultural Center on the island of Oahu, because both are living cultural centers.

"But, I believe our story is more compelling, and our location certainly is more convenient for most people. And I believe it will be at least that big of an attraction," he said. "I think it really will be a wonderful complement to our National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. When people come to Oklahoma, they really expect to hear about cowboys and Indians, they really do. And this will give us a great place to tell part of the story."

'What is that mound of dirt?'Humphreys often hears that question at presentations the cultural center makes to interested groups. The inquiry concerns the promontory, an earthen spiral mound inspired by ancient earthen mounds used by American Indians as spiritual, cultural, trade and commercial centers in many locations for thousands of years.

"As people are driving by the site, they don't know what it is," he said. "Well, now you can see the Hall of the People coming up, and it really is pretty dramatic and impressive."

This, however, is by no means the last construction contractors will be doing at the location.
To date, about $82 million has been spent to clean up the land and build what's there. Another $75 million of work is planned " provided the money can be found through the state of Oklahoma, the state's tribes and other potential sources, according to both Timberman and Humphreys.

For this project, planning the work to correspond with available funds has dictated its evolvement, and planners see that key principle continuing as the project moves toward a planned 2014 opening.

The project's first phase involved cleaning up the land, building the promontory and the visitors center and pouring the substructures and foundations for the south and north galleries. Its second phase, under way now, involves building the actual gallery buildings and installing their mechanical systems.

"At the end of this phase, we will have what really is an enclosed building, with some minimal air conditioning," Timberman said.

Next up for contractors will be to build the center's east wing, which will hold its gathering forum for inside performances. Then, two more phases finish out the center's glass installations and interior improvements, including exhibits, as well as landscaping.

The project's final phase, Timberman said, involves raising an endowment intended to pay for the center's future operations.

"Our goal for the endowment is $15 million, and raising it will continue to be a priority for us, even after we open our doors," she said.

Humphreys' concern involves more than just raising money for an endowment. His focus is putting together the cash needed to complete construction, as well as creating the endowment.

"As we put the whole funding plan together for the bricks and mortar, part of it will be state funding, part of it will be tribal funding, and part of it will be, perhaps, financial support from Oklahoma City," he said. Foundations and other private sources also will be approached, he added.

"The city, of course, contributed the land and a $5 million federal grant," Humphreys said, noting that the cultural center made a presentation to the city to try to get some funding for the project included into MAPS 3.

"But we didn't make the cut on that, just like the downtown art museum didn't make the cut on MAPS," he said.

Oklahoma's American Indian tribes, he noted, already have spent about $5 million on the project, and the cultural center expects them to contribute at least $10 million more as work continues.

A key contributor, however, will be the state of Oklahoma, he maintained.

"What people need to realize is that this museum is a state project, owned by the state of Oklahoma, and that the Native American Cultural Education Authority will oversee its operations. The state has invested tens of millions of dollars to get it this far," he said. "I believe the state will finish it."

Humphreys said meetings between the cultural center, the foundation and state officials continue on the funding topic. The goal, he said, is to keep enough money coming to the project so that construction will not have to be interrupted.

"We have presented a funding plan to state leaders that will allow us to keep moving forward. It would require the state to do some things, and it would require us to raise matching funds as we take each step along the way," Humphreys said.

"We believe it is a reasonable plan, and we think it is doable. But, quite frankly, for it to happen, the state is going to have to take some action on it within the next year or so, and then the ball will be in our court."

As far as fundraising efforts from the general public and non-governmental sources, Humphreys describes efforts as being preparatory for now, but added they likely will include a basket of different approaches ranging from an annual fund drive to engage a multitude of small donors, to talking with larger donors who may want to play a bigger part in getting the work finished.

"We don't have anything teed up and ready to go, but it is probably not a good time to do that anyway," he said. "Government everywhere is facing some hard financial decisions. The city is, the state is and, quite frankly, the private sector is, as well. So, this is not the time to launch a major fundraising campaign."

A landmark in new ways
Pouring concrete and building steel, of course, is not the only work going on related to the center. Its exhibit designs continue to evolve as discussions continue between architects, designers, planners and the state's numerous American Indian tribes.

Ideas being examined are ways to include the state's community colleges, universities and other museums to create community partnerships that would bolster the cultural center's offerings.

"We are having very healthy discussions with institutions like the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, the Oklahoma History Center and other American Indian cultural centers and museums," Timberman said. "These discussions really speak to the spirit of cooperation and partnership that I think can really serve to make all of our institutions and cultural destinations successful in our area."

The educational authority also partnered with The Oklahoman in producing a Newspapers in Education supplement about the cultural center, sending it to about 20,000 students.

But, what may be creating more buzz for the cultural center than anything else right now is OklaVision, an Internet-based, hour-long broadcast that originates from the cultural center's visitor center every weekday.

At least one day a week, the show includes segments about the cultural center, and often features programming involving the state's American Indians, including local and statewide elected governmental and tribal leaders.

Through OklaVision, the cultural center is beginning to create its identity, Timberman said.

"Although the (cultural center and museum) site is still being built and not open to the public, it is accessible through this new medium," she said. "Our visitors center, even just as the set for OklaVision, connects its visitors to the Oklahoma experience and helps to educate them about what the state has to residents and tourists, here in what we someday we will call a corridor of cultural experience.

"It is a neat way to get people to our site." "Jack Money

Site for the site
OklaVision, a product of Branded News Worldwide, began broadcasting from the museum's visitor center in October. Presented by the Chickasaw Nation, it features a live, weekday newscast that can be viewed at www.oklavision.tv starting at noon. Its website also contains an interactive library filled with more than 2,000 videos about people, places and things in Oklahoma. "Jack Money

photo Workers put finishing touches on the steel skeleton of the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum's Hall of the People structure near downtown Oklahoma City. The new construction is visible from Interstate 40. photo/Jack Money

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