Bridge between cultures: Fort Sill museum director, curator retires
January 12, 2012
FORT SILL, Okla. -- Post leaders, friends and family gathered Jan. 5 at the Patriot Club to honor Towana Spivey, following his nearly 30-year career as the Fort Sill National Historic Landmark Museum's director and curator.
With a breadth of experiences and wisdom, Spivey served as a bridge between Native American, Army and National Park Service interests. The abilities that formed that bridge were assembled over a lifetime of experiences that seemingly placed the right man in the right job.
"Towana Spivey was a great confidant to me, he facilitated good counsel and understanding so when we met with tribal leaders we could have a productive meeting and dialogue and work through various issues," said Maj. Gen. David Halverson, Fires Center of Excellence and Fort Sill commanding general.
Spivey's story begins with the Chickasaw Indian blood flowing in his veins. Many people, having met the blue-eyed, Anglo-looking man, may be surprised to hear him speak of his Native American upbringing, but that is but one aspect of what made him a great fit at Fort Sill.
Through a relationship with the post that spanned six decades, he related to today's Soldiers, having arrived here in 1962 as an Oklahoma Army National Guardsman serving on M48 Patton tanks. He might already have been a footnote in history except that when he applied for a job on post in 1974 the subsequent resignation by President Richard Nixon led to a freeze on all federal job hiring. Instead, he accepted a position as a contract archeologist for the Museum of the Great Plains in Lawton. That position added yet another dimension to his extensive resume and one that aided his standing with area Native American tribes.
"Archeology alone represented a contrast and conflict between the cultures; sometimes there were issues in regards to archeologists tampering with Native American sites or burials," he said.
Spivey's civilian career here finally began early in 1982 when he was hired as the assistant director and curator. From the beginning he understood he was to become the new director and after about 18 months, when the previous director left, he stepped into the position.
"The transition really wasn't difficult as I had worked with museum personnel already for nearly a decade," he said. "Because of that, I knew the inner workings long before I came to work here."
While developing his relationship with the Army, Spivey also began to cultivate his connections with area tribes. He said trust and respect are important to Native Americans, but neither are realized by the position one holds.
"It's all based on an individual relationship and developing a mutual experience. Through this shared experience, trust and respect are developed," he said.
Ongoing interaction with the Native American tribes in Oklahoma provided a direct application to Global War on Terror operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Spivey praised Halverson for his awareness of cultural issues upon taking command here.
Spivey said Halverson related his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how the general realized if the Army can't deal with the tribal people in Oklahoma, it certainly couldn't deal with tribes in Iraq or Afghanistan. At the general's request, Spivey set to raising cultural awareness in Soldiers and commanders for both those preparing to deploy and those returning. He also boosted Army chaplains' awareness about tribal beliefs regarding death, funerals, ceremonies and the afterlife.
"When you go into a foreign country with the intent to establish law and order, overcome an enemy force or take an objective, if you do that without knowledge of the culture you are making a major mistake and your efforts are going to be multiplied in difficulties," he said. "If you understand the culture better and look at things the way tribal groups look at them, you stand a much better chance of establishing a peaceful relationship and avoiding conflict."
Citing several instances where the museum provided key insight into current situation, Spivey spoke of history's value to the Army's mission.
Around 1989, the museum contributed directly to military operations in Nicaragua. The steep mountainous terrain made it impossible for wheeled vehicles to traverse, to haul artillery and other equipment in. Spivey said even helicopters didn't function well there. With the Army seeking answers for how to move equipment there, they recalled pack animals were used up until World War II. About that time, Spivey received a phone call from Fort Bragg, N.C., to see what solutions his museum could bring to bear on the dilemma. Reviewing the museum's collections of pack artillery, saddles, gear and equipment, Spivey offered some ideas and recommendations. From this, the Army developed a new system for use in Nicaragua to get artillery where it was needed. Later, a manual was written that applied to operations in Afghanistan as well.
In another instance, the Army requested analysis of a North Korean deployment toward the Demilitarized Zone. Intelligence experts weren't sure of the intent of the North Koreans, and because of this, the Army raised its alert status and prepared for the threat of imminent war. Answers were sought to determine if the North Korean forces were arrayed in an offensive position to attack or in a defensive stance in a show of strength.
Looking through old documentation and photographs, Spivey responded to a request that asked what did the North Korean military do when it invaded South Korea in the Korean War? How did that deployment look, what distinctive patterns stood out to suggest their intent?
"The general at the time found it ironic that the decision to go to war or not might hinge on what the museum staff said about the North Korean military," said Spivey. "The data was reviewed and determined to be a defensive maneuver and the Army stood down."
He added, that is what a museum is supposed to do -- it's suppose to be the reference point with the long view in contrast to the Army's short view. This more limited view is brought on by changes of command, rotations of units and other aspects that look out two to five years.
"Museums look in a much longer view such as 100 years or more. We see the trends and changes, the ups and downs. When it comes time for decisions to be made, about even normal operations, it's been advantageous in the past to involve the museum," said Spivey.
As for history's value, Spivey said it is always relevant.
"The only question is whether we listen to its lessons or not," he said. "That's been my job for years -- to communicate the lessons from the past so that we can learn for the present and the future."