First Person Presentation with FAM's Shoshana Wasserman - 405 Magazine

First Person Presentation with FAM’s Shoshana Wasserman

Shoshana Wasserman on the focus of the First Americans Museum.

Photo by Charlie Neuenschwander

“Thirty years ago, our stories were being told by others. We wanted to change the paradigm. We wanted to be the ones who told our stories.” Shoshana Wasserman is the deputy director of First Americans Museum (FAM) in Oklahoma City — which has been in development for nearly three decades of planning. The sprawling 175,000-square-foot museum located at 659 First Americans Boulevard is home to state-of-the-art exhibitions featuring First Americans history, culture and art; live public and educational programs; a full-service restaurant and an express café offering unique Native-inspired cuisine; and a museum store featuring an amazing selection of one-of-a-kind jewelry, basketry, pottery, textiles and Native-inspired products — exclusive items created by premier First American artists that can only be found at FAM. Wasserman has been involved in making the museum a reality since 2005, and spoke with undeniable verve on the magnitude of this passion project.

“FAM has two distinct audiences: [one is] nonnative-guests that may not be familiar with the distinction among nations and the importance of these stories to our shared American history,” said Wasserman. “These include school groups and tourism groups, leisure travelers and business travelers. That is our customer base. But our constituent base, our tribal members, is divided into two distinct subgroups. “Those that have been raised in native communities know their tribal histories and live in their reservation areas or in close proximity. FAM needed to reflect those experiences authentically. There are also many native constituents who live in urban environments, who are not geographically close to their tribe of origin. They are disconnected from fellow tribal members and tribal programming on a day-to-day basis. FAM fills a tremendous need for these individuals. “I fall into both these categories. I was born in Norman, Oklahoma, raised in Oklahoma City, and lived on both coasts. My mother is a Thlopthlocco Tribal Town and Muscogee Nation citizen, so I was raised with tribal understanding connectivity. In fact, my grandfather helped reestablish Thlopthlocco Tribal Town in what is now the state of Oklahoma. My father was Jewish, and our family was originally from Poland and came through Ellis Island in New York. Both cultures have very tribal structures, and both are closely connected with nature as an important aspect of human engagement with the world.”

Wasserman explained she began to see the need for a place like the First Americans Museum in the early 1980s. For many years, she served as co-founder of The Great American Indian Dance Company, and traveled all over the world. “We educated people about some of the distinctions of our tribes in North America. My undergraduate degree is in education, and my first love and passion is to help take people from what they think know to perhaps what they don’t know. During my tenure with the dance company, we helped promote the state of Oklahoma, motivating visitation to this state, but there was no way for a visitor to navigate that experience with so much distance between each nation. That was when I began to dream of a
place like this museum.

“My graduate degree is in business communications and organizational development, and it has been an honor to help develop a place that values the multiplicity of first-person accounts of history. At the end of the day, these experiences are centered around human values, and I hope everyone who visits FAM can relate to these human values and take away something personally meaningful in their own lives.”

Through dance, education or in passionately planning new exhibits for the First Americans Museum, Shoshana Wasserman is continually involved in honoring the stories of the 39 tribal nations in Oklahoma. Thanks to her determination and years of hard work and collaboration, those stories now have a place to call home.