June 21--POTEAU -- A new Choctaw Nation cultural center is in the initial planning stages and the LeFlore County Development Coalition wants it.
With a little more than 10 counties in the Choctaw Nation, however, a competition for the cultural center has begun with Durant and Broken Bow as other cities in the governmental boundaries showing an interest.
Closer proximity to Fort Smith and its forthcoming U.S. Marshals Museum, as well as Poteau's economic position within the Choctaw Nation, could give the community a competitive advantage.
"We've traveled to every chamber in the 10 and a half counties, and Poteau stands out among our strongest," Lana Sleeper, Choctaw Nation marketing director, told the LeFlore County Development Coalition at its annual meeting in the Donald W. Reynolds Center on Friday.
Rob Ratley, a coalition member and community affairs manager for Arkansas with OG&E Energy Corp., prompted Sleeper to look for ways to tie in the Choctaw history with the U.S. Marshals and Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves, the famed Indian Territory lawman who learned the languages of the Five Civilized Tribes as a fugitive slave during the Civil War.
"We are very intertwined in that," Sleeper said of the Marshals' history.
Susan Jenson of the LeFlore County Museum said she would look into finding connections. Sleeper and her tourism consultant Susan Kennedy are also looking to fine more physical connections to the Trail of Tears. The Choctaws were the first to be relocated to what became Oklahoma, Sleeper said.
For several years, the Choctaws under the leadership of Chief Gary Batton have placed a more concentrated effort in preserving the tribe's cultural heritage with dance teams, language classes, pottery and basket weaving. All of these aspects are being folded into the attracting tourism dollars. No products from China are sold at their visitor center, Sleeper said, and they are working on getting a Choctaw craftsman to make more tribal-made toys for children.
Sleeper, a dancer with studios in Oklahoma and Kansas, has worked with Mississippi band of Choctaws to share techniques in pottery and basket weaving and relearn Choctaw dances that were revived in the 1970s, she said, but had since seen interest and attention fade. There are now five dance teams, and recruitment continues. The tribe also is updating its website at choctawnation.com to have more links to the communities, Sleeper said.
"We have great relationships with every county in the territory," Sleeper said. "Everything that the nation has done, I think it has done with the understanding that the whole community has to prosper. It can't just be the Choctaw people, because it won't affect the whole area. Our goal is for the whole body to rise."
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