Oklahoma Main Street and Tribal Nations: Fostering Successful Partnerships

November 23, 2021 | Oklahoma Main Street and Tribal Nations: Fostering Successful Partnerships | By: Jenna Temkin, Manager of Marketing & Outreach |
Left: Governor Reggie W. Wassana (middle), Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribe, Lt Governor Gib Miles (back), Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribe, and County Court Clerk Marie Hurst (front), Canadian County, Oklahoma, volunteer at El Reno Main Street's Burger Day Festival. Photo courtesy of El Reno Main Street. Right: Okmulgee Main Street unveils street signs in the language of the Muscogee Nation downtown. Photo courtesy of Okmulgee Main Street.

Oklahoma is home to the headquarters of nearly 40 federally recognized Native American tribes, and many of their offices, cultural sites, and museums are located close to or within Main Street districts. In recognition of Native American Heritage Month, we asked four Oklahoma Main Street programs to tell us about their partnerships with local Tribal Nations in their community. From engaging in board member recruitment efforts and program collaborations to participating in downtown events and streetscape planning, Tribal Nations and Main Street programs in Oklahoma have fostered vital relationships. Keep reading to learn more about their efforts.

Okmulgee Main Street: Okmulgee, Oklahoma | Muscogee Nation

Left: Okmulgee Main Street prepares for the Glo Run, a partnership with Muscogee Nation. Center: Street signs in English and the language of the Muskogee Nation were put up around downtown. Right: A member of the Muscogee Nation performs at the Okmulgee Art and Food Market. Photos courtesy of Okmulgee Main Street.

The Muscogee Nation, headquartered in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, is the fourth largest Native American tribe in the U.S., with 86,100 citizens. Okmulgee Main Street Executive Director Heather Sumner said one of her top priorities when she started her role eight years ago was building a strong relationship with the Muscogee Nation. Heather started having conversations with the newly elected Chief and new City Manager soon after she came on staff and worked to slowly foster a relationship with members of the Nation. After building trust over time and having the Secretary of the Interior and the Tourism Director of the Muscogee Nation both serve on the Main Street Board, the Nation and the Main Street program have become strong partners.

The Muscogee Nation has a strong presence in downtown Okmulgee today. The historic Muscogee Nation Council House in the town square brings in visitors from across the country and was recently remodeled through a $3.2 million renovation using Historic Tax Credits. Okmulgee Main Street worked with the Muscogee Nation throughout the three-year renovation process, and the house recently reopened with a museum. When a new streetscape project was initiated downtown, the Muscogee Nation worked with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and the City of Okmulgee to coordinate and pay for the section of Main Street outside the Council House to be refinished. Additionally, five years ago, the Main Street program, the City of Okmulgee, and Muscogee Nation partnered on a project to add Muscogee Nation language (Mvskoke) to downtown street signs. The Muscogee Nation paid for half of the project, and now Mvskoke words can be seen throughout downtown.

Okmulgee Main Street has partnered with the Muscogee Nation on a number of downtown events, as well. They have sponsored and participated in the Main Street program’s annual Chili Festival, where Muscogee artists have participated as vendors and Muscogee Nation youth led basket-weaving demonstrations. The Muscogee Nation marketing department regularly promotes downtown events and hosts events on the Council House lawn to bring members downtown. The Muscogee Nation and the Main Street program will continue to work closely together, as they recently purchased a building across the street from the Main Street program office that will function as a visitors’ center.

Main Street Pryor: Pryor, Oklahoma | Cherokee Nation

The Cherokee Nation is the largest tribal nation in the country and is one of the largest employers in northeast Oklahoma. Executive Director of Main Street Pryor, Jennie VanBuskirk LaFave, is Cherokee and says that the relationship between Main Street and the Cherokee Nation is a natural fit. “Cherokee Nation gives back to the community, to downtown, and to individuals in Pryor in so many ways; it’s so valuable that they’re here and willing to do that,” Jennie said. One example of the ways the Nation has given back was when a local tribal council member reached out to Jennie to see how she could plug into Main Street. That conversation sparked grants to fund four permanent plaques that were placed on historic buildings downtown.

Jennie says that what makes Pryor stand out is that they’re the hometown of famed Native American artist Bill Rabbit. His daughter, Tracy Rabbit, is also an artist who is deeply involved in the community. While artwork from Bill and Tracy is featured throughout Pryor, including one of Bill’s famed painted ponies, Jennie wants to incorporate more of their artwork in public spaces downtown. Jennie is hoping to work with Tracy Rabbit soon on murals and sculptures to incorporate more Cherokee art downtown.

El Reno Main Street: El Reno, Oklahoma | Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes

Left: Melissa Buffalomeat (left), Director, the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribe and Zach Bushyhead (right), accountant at Lucky Star Casino serve Fried Onion Burgers in El Reno Main Street's booth at the Burger Day Festival. Center: 
Clara Bushyhead (left), Lucky Star Casino Public Relations Manager, and  Morgan Schwartz (right), owner of KalaKotee & Co. helping to decorate for Spooktacular’s costume contest. Right: Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribe members performing a native dance at the Burger Day Festival. Photos courtesy of El Reno Main Street.

Headquartered in Concho, Oklahoma, the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes became federally recognized as one tribe when the Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho were assigned to the same reservation in the 1930s. El Reno, Oklahoma, is located in one of the nine counties in the tribal jurisdiction area. Shana Ford, Executive Director of El Reno Main Street, said she hopes the Main Street program’s partnership with the Tribes can encourage the community to come together and learn from each other. She’s aimed to foster these connections by having Main Street meetings in their home-base in Concho, including a yearly board member training.

The Main Street program’s relationship with the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes began to flourish once members of the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes got involved in the Main Street Board. Shana recruited Clara Bushyhead, Public Relations Manager for a Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribe-owned casino, and another member of the Tribes to join the Main Street Board a few years ago. A range of programs and partnerships followed.

This year, El Reno Main Street teamed up with the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes and the local public library to organize a Story Walk throughout November. The first page of the book Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story was posted at the library, and Story Walk participants could visit 13 small businesses to read the entire story. Fry Bread recipe cards were available at the library, along with the last pages of the book. To wrap up the event, Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes will demonstrate how to make fry bread downtown on Small Business Saturday.

The Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes have participated in and sponsored a variety of other El Reno events and festivals, including El Reno’s Burger Day Festival. The Tribes have taken an active role in organizing volunteers and security, as well as incorporating tribe heritage into the festival by having drummers and dancers have perform on stage and a tribal elder tell stories on the kids’ stage.

Ada Main Street: Ada, Oklahoma | Chickasaw Nation

It’s never too late to start these partnerships. Marissa Tucker, Executive Director of Ada Main Street, said their relationship with the Chickasaw Nation is relatively new, but they have been a strong and consistent partner for the program. She said opening up lines of communication and discussing commons goals was an important first step when she joined Ada Main Street a year and a half ago.

The ancient Chickasaw Homeland once spanned across parts of southwestern Kentucky, western Tennessee, northern Mississippi and northwestern Alabama. Today, Chickasaw country encompasses 13 south-central Oklahoma counties, including the town of Ada. They are one of the largest employers in the community.

Marissa’s advice to those seeking to develop relationships with local Tribal Nations is to, “Find your liaison; find your person that can make decisions or reach out to people for those decisions." Having a board member who works with Chickasaw Nation has been crucial and opened the door to other partnership opportunities. Marissa is also on the Board of the Chickasaw Marketing Association, which has helped build a stronger partnership and helped with promoting downtown events to the Nation. Outside of sponsoring events and offering up Chickasaw buildings on Main Street as space for events, Chickasaw Nation and Ada Main Street will be working on an event next year to celebrate Chickasaw heritage downtown.