The Chickasaw Nation, an active tribe now in the Arbuckle Mountains of Oklahoma, was once known as the “Spartans of the Lower Mississippi Valley” and “The Unconquered and Unconquerable Chickasaw”. Their original homeland was in what’s now Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama. Their first contact with Europeans was in 1540, when Hernando de Soto was exploring for gold. Rather than acquiesce to his demand for 200 slaves, the Chickasaws attacked his camp at night. Forty Spaniards were killed and their equipment was destroyed. In 1837, the Chickasaws were forced from their ancestral lands by the Federal government to move to what is now Oklahoma. This proud nation has now built a glorious cultural center open to the public in Sulphur, Oklahoma.
The Chickasaw Culture Center is on an ecologically sustainable campus of 109 acres. The first thing that one comes across is an Honor Garden that adds a living and deceased Chickasaw or supporter of the tribe to the concentric stone tablets with their pictures. The honor garden also has a perpetual, recycled fountain. The Chickasaws are a living tribe and have always been a river people. Three symbols from ancient times continue to infuse into the cultural center: the spiral, symbolizing the wind and depicting life’s journey from birth to afterlife; the sacred eye, representing the all-seeing eye of the Creator. It also signifies the Chickasaw worldview; the sun, reflecting rebirth or renewal, the giver of light, the heavenly realm.
The campus is supposed to look like it had grown up out of the ground. Native stone, copper, wood and water in the design create a serene effect. There’s the recreation of an ancient village, with craftsmen/instructors showing traditional skills and how they are updated for today’s Chickasaws.
The Anoli Theater shows just how modern the Chickasaws are: it’s a state-of-the-art large format capable “smart” theater. The Exhibit Center has a “Spirit Forest” that detects people as they pass through, with the exhibit changing from day to night and changing through the seasons. There is a passage that depicts the hardships through the seasons as the Chickasaws faced removal to the Indian Territory. Life-sized, multi-media screens give one the opportunity to do tribal ritual dances along with Chickasaws, just as they are done in ceremonies. Think of it as a multi-cultural, physical version of Karaoke!
Other wonderful opportunities to enrich your wealth of cultural knowledge include a fine arts gallery and a research library for learning not only about the Chickasaws, but Southeastern tribes and Native Americans as a whole.
After a day of roaming and learning, it’s time for a hearty meal. The Aaimpa’ Café (“a place to eat”) reflects Chickasaw community values, including being in tune with nature. The space is airy and sunlit. Gardens on the campus provide herbs and veggies for the menu.
Incidentally, there are no taxes for retail or food on sovereign or trust land.
A couple of regularly available items include the traditional Indian taco, with Indian fry bread as the shell. It’s quite satisfying, with seasoned ground beef, black bean salsa (which they call Red River caviar), lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cheese.
An even more unique food served is “pashofa”, which is a side dish of cracked corn, hominy, and pork. Most people prefer adding a healthy dash of salt to this versatile starch course.
Grape dumplings were traditionally made with syrup of wild grapes. They appeal to folks of all ages.
On special occasions, the café also serves buffalo dishes. Seasonally, you can try foods like wild greens, possum grapes and wild onions.
The Chickasaws are a progressive, growing tribe and don’t live by the old ways alone. They also own and operate Bedre’ Fine Chocolates. Bedre’ makes gourmet chocolates for retail and for upscale private labels like Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s. One of their most coveted premium products is their chocolate-covered potato crisps (I’m pretty sure they’re Pringle’s). They come in your choice of milk, dark or white chocolate. Positively addictive!