The construction of a $2 million Shawnee Tribe project is well underway and is a labor of love for Marnie Leist who was hired on by the tribe to develop and direct the important undertaking.

MIAMI – It can be an overwhelming task to pull together exhibits and create a museum, heritage and culture center from the floor up, but Director Marnie Leist’s experience is certainly a valuable asset towards these efforts to bring to life the Shawnee Tribe Culture Center.

The construction of a $2 million Shawnee Tribe project is well underway and is a labor of love for Leist who was hired on by the tribe to develop and direct the important undertaking.

The Shawnee Tribe Culture Center will be located next to the Northeastern Oklahoma Inter-Tribal building at 108 Eight Tribes Trail in Miami. The facility will include a gallery/exhibit area, large and small viewing rooms, a catering kitchen, gift shop, classrooms and administrative space along with areas for storing and preserving artifacts.

The center will be accessible from the Miami Travel Center to tribal members, the local community and visitors in a convenient and high-visibility location just south of the Missouri/Kansas border. Visitors also will be able to park and easily visit the Culture Center without paying to exit the turnpike.

Moving from Ohio to Kodiak, Alaska, Leist joined the highly ambitious team at the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository in 2005. With a Master of Arts in Art History and a Museum Studies Graduate Certificate from the University of Cincinnati, she became known as a leader in best practices. She advanced the care of the museum’s extensive holdings, helping to preserve over 250,000 objects in perpetuity. She was instrumental in obtaining national accreditation for the museum, becoming the second accredited tribal museum in the country.

On the remote island, with its stormy seas, vast black sand beaches, and moss-covered spruce forests, Leist had many opportunities that went way beyond the norm. From programs such as Community Archaeology and Travelling Traditions, to creating exhibits with international partners, to the daily work of serving the public, their tight-knit staff created an inviting environment to celebrate Alutiiq culture. Recently, her conception of the museum’s first interactive exhibit, Pililuki-Make Them! was awarded the Museums Alaska Award of Excellence.

In her career, Leist has over 13 years of museum and non-profit experience as a Board member, volunteer, and staff member.

“The creativity that Marnie Leist fostered at the Alutiiq Museum will allow the Shawnee people to have a place to be their own storyteller,” Second Chief of the Shawnee Tribe Ben Barnes said, “Her leadership experience will ensure the Culture Center is relevant to our Shawnee community and sustainable for many years to come. From our first interview, we could see how accomplishments at the Alutiiq Museum would be a fantastic fit within our own organization. The professionalism, immersion, and desire for knowledge while Marnie was the Alutiiq Museum will most certain guide the Tribe’s mission of telling the story of the Shawnee.”

Along with a community presentation held Feb. 28 to gather feedback and ideas, there is much work involved in developing the Center.

When asked if the scope of the process was a little daunting, Leist said, “You said it! For example, a normal exhibit development schedule would be about two years. Develop an idea based on your existing planning, which of course we don't have yet, research enough to be able to write a little, have some imagery/objects, a rough floor plan, then run ideas by close stakeholders, like committees, then hone idea and plans, apply for grant/sponsors, then probably a year and a half later install the exhibit/associated programs. We have a few months.”

Not only the obvious displays and programs need to be brought together, but much work goes into the progress behind the scenes building the supporting structure for the facility.

“In addition to what the public sees, there are policies and procedures, things like an emergency plan, furniture and even power tools to work with are nice too, also communication tools like website, perhaps a logo, brochure, and a whole lot more,” Leist said. “Museums, in particular, have a lot of special requirements in establishing best practices. It really is a huge component of operations and also is the backbone of all the things that we do and what people see and experience, like awesome logo gear in the store, traveling education boxes...”

The Shawnee Tribe's Culture Center has been a vision of Shawnee Chief Ron Sparkman’s and many Shawnee tribal leaders and members.

“It's something we look forward to completion and something that's very important to us,” Sparkman said at the Center’s groundbreaking ceremony back in June of 2017.

Leist is tasked with ensuring the tribe’s mission in creating the Culture Center is accomplished.

“The mission of the Center is to be the place for Shawnees to tell the story of the Shawnee past, how that informs and shapes Shawnees today, and who we see ourselves becoming tomorrow,” Leist said.

She has begun the endeavor to gather the Shawnee Tribe's cultural, historical and archeological pieces and artifacts for the center.

“There are none. We are reaching out to other organizations and community members to create programs,” Leist said.

Leist has a vision of her own for the Culture Center she hopes to accomplish.

“I come from a background where visitors not only interact in exhibits and experience culture but also contribute to what is going on. I hope the phrase ‘beyond hands-on’ could be said about the Culture Center. It may not happen on day one, but over the next year, the connections will run deeper and deeper,” she said.

As the Shawnee Tribe’s Culture Center comes together the excitement is building to see the finished facility and implement the first exhibits and programs. The center has a projected completion date scheduled for sometime later this summer.

“We hosted a presentation in part to gather ideas. We are very much in the developing ideas phase,” Leist said. “This first exhibit will be about culture bearers' experiences in the last few years as they reconnected with Fort Ancient pottery. There have been workshops learning about how these pots were made and used. From using local clay, to figuring out the best way to grind shell for temper, to firing temperatures. The thin pots are special indeed, and learning the technique of making them has been quite the undertaking.

"The tribe has also been collaborating with scientists to not only learn more about the manufacture of the vessels themselves but for example, the study of the temper may reveal about the movement and connection of people, as Shawnees were prolific travelers and traders. The vessels were made for cooking, so thin a small fire could be used, so exploring the kinds of foods that could be cooked in such pots. Also, the design of the pots is very distinctive, so we are looking at the adornments. It's hard to summarize this project! It is art, science, culture, and all of these elements will be in the exhibit and programs. We are creating a Kids' Committee to help us with some of those ideas, so we can have STEM or STEAM activities."

Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.