SULPHUR, Okla. — A soft, summer breeze unfurls the welcoming flags and causes a nearby corn patch to sway as if waving hello. Bright flowers and shade trees line meandering walkways and the sound of gentle, flowing water provides the perfect background to the picturesque setting. For visitors to the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, Oklahoma, that beauty and peace are just the first in an array of memorable experiences.

SULPHUR, Okla. — A soft, summer breeze unfurls the welcoming flags and causes a nearby corn patch to sway as if waving hello. Bright flowers and shade trees line meandering walkways and the sound of gentle, flowing water provides the perfect background to the picturesque setting. For visitors to the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, Oklahoma, that beauty and peace are just the first in an array of memorable experiences.


Celebrating its fifth anniversary this week, the center and its staff are fulfilling the mission of preserving, protecting, revitalizing and sharing the Chickasaw Indian Nation’s rich heritage. Since opening five years ago, in the neighborhood of 350,000 visitors from across the globe have been welcomed to the 109-acre site.


Valorie Walters, the center’s executive officer, said the goal of the center is for people of all ages and from all walks of life to learn about the Chickasaw culture in a relaxed, fun, welcoming atmosphere.


Youngsters squeal with excitement as they explore the exhibit center where the touching of exhibits such as animal pelts and pottery is allowed and encouraged. Interactive exhibits and large-screen movies add to the fun for children and adults. An exhibit center favorite — the spirit forest — contains native plants, animals, running water, sights and sounds much like the Chickasaw’s southeastern America homelands. Adding to the mix are Chickasaw artisans demonstrating how to make such things as pine needle baskets, balls with which to play stick ball, rattles and other items.


On weekends and during special celebrations, the center’s traditional "Chikasha Inchokka’" village teems with activity. Visitors get to see first hand what daily life was like for the Chickasaws centuries ago through demonstrations and hands-on activities.


A distant drum beat and a rattle signal the start of the stomp dance performances by the Chickasaw Nation dance group. The women, dressed in traditional prairie-style dresses, artfully move the rattles made from turtle shells or cans filled with river rock that are attached to their legs. The men chant, sing and use the tribe’s traditional rattles. Many in the audience soon find themselves on stage as they answer the enthusiastic invitation to join in the dance.


An outdoor amphitheater — the site of many Chickasaw and community events — honor garden, fountain, art gallery and even friendly catfish are also part of the center’s features. And when guests need to refuel, the Aaimpa’ Cafe’ is ready. Chickasaw foods such as buffalo meat burgers and chili, Indian fry bread, grape dumplings and pishofa (hominy with pork) are always a favorite, along with sandwiches, salads, and lots of other choices. The cafe uses fresh vegetables and herbs grown right there at the center.


For Jason Burwell, originally of Dallas and a member of the stomp dancers, the center isn’t just where he works. It’s his passion, as is his heritage.


"My Chickasaw heritage is something I can cling to. There’s a lot of people in life who don’t have anything to cling to. They don’t know where they came from," Burwell said as he reverently holds the rattle he often uses in his dances. "I know where I come from. I believe my blood is tangible. I sincerely can feel it. Just knowing my history and foundation and where I come from gives me strength and confidence."


For anyone researching their family tree, the site’s Holisso Research Center is a free treasure trove of information.


"We do genealogy research for the five civilized tribes — Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole tribes. We help people trace their ancestry back to the Dawes Rolls (the list of people accepted as eligible for the tribes between 1898 and 1907 in the Indian Territory)," Amber Carter, a research center staff member, said. "We also house part of the Chickasaw National archives here, so we have governors’ papers, newspapers, territorial newspapers, microfilm from various newspapers and Chickasaw records. We have a non-circulating library collection that focuses on the Chickasaw and other Southeastern tribal history and archaeology. People can come in and sit here all day any day we’re open and look through our items. … We have lots of items in our manuscript room such as marriage records and birth records, so we can pull from those if someone is looking for specific information on a certain person."


Carter continues, "Genealogy is our most popular thing. We have lots of people come for that, and we have thousands of requests every year. … We have a couple of different databases to look things up and four public access computers. We even have full subscriptions to two databases including Ancestry.com and we also have it (Ancestry.com) for Native American records and even have where you can look at overseas records. Anyone can come in and use all this free of charge."


The center also has marriage and birth records, an archives collection from the Chickasaw Nation, archaeology displays and artwork displays. It even offers genealogy classes and other workshops throughout the year.


Burwell wants visitors to the cultural center to experience what he feels every day.


"I want our patrons to feel the spirit of our songs and dances, the beauty of our language. When I see them pull into the parking lot, I think about what their expectations may be and try to fulfill that, to make a memory for people. … The beauty of our job is that people come back. We establish friendships. It’s such a blessing to do what I do," Burwell said. "We (Chickasaws) have no words for goodbye. From our hearts, we say until we see you again."