Tribal Perspectives on Sea Level Rise and the Costs of Preservation at Egmont Key

By Nick Butler

Sea level rise in Florida is a real thing and is currently affecting thousands of significant sites along the coast. One site, Egmont Key, has been investigated by the THPO and may likely be completely underwater within the next 100 years. With the incoming tide of sea level rise, it is imperative that we capture the importance of this site and the gravity it carries in Tribal history.

Figure 1 Figure 1. Map of Egmont Key’s receding shoreline over the past 100 years.

In 1877, Egmont Key, an island located at the mouth of Tampa Bay, was approximately 580 acres in size. Over 100 years later, the island is just barely over 200 acres, as a result of erosion and sea water rising 4-8 inches in that time period. The Gulf of Mexico is swallowing up Egmont Key before our eyes. For the Seminole Tribe of Florida (STOF) and its members, Egmont Key represents the struggle between the necessity of preservation for future generations and the costs of those protections. Without immediate intervention, the island will only be a memory.

During the Third Seminole War, Egmont was employed as a concentration camp. Tribal Members have often likened Egmont to “our Auschwitz.” It’s a place of death, a crucible that serves as a memorial for Tribal members’ ancestors’ ability to endure the grimmest of hardships. As tribal member Rita Youngman explains, “Egmont Key is an important place since it is a reminder about how the Seminoles went on to survive one of the darkest periods in U.S. history.”

Tribal Members want action. It is their history to care for. “Whatever they can do, I want it preserved. Like they said, this is where she [Polly Parker] was. It’s like y’all said, we are losing sand and trying to get help with that, mainly,” said Nancy Willie. She is a descendant of Polly Parker, a significant Seminole figure who escaped capture while on the Seminole’s Trail of Tears and eventually made her way back home to south Florida.

Mrs. Willie, along with others, has only begun their journey into investigating ancestral heritage and the grave history of Egmont Key for the Seminole Tribe of Florida. She decided to make the trek to from the Hollywood Reservation on the latest community trip this past April.

Figure 2Figure 2. A testament to Polly Parker’s tenacity, six of her descendants journey back from the prison she escaped.

On April 5th, 2018 twenty-five to thirty members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida gathered from the Brighton, Big Cypress, and Hollywood Reservations to wait on a little ferry at a beach in Fort De Soto Park which is located just outside the mouth of Tampa Bay. Reaching later in life, Nancy Willie wishes to know more about the story of Polly Parker and others, so that she may share that knowledge with her children. If the island were to vanish, a vital touchstone to the Seminole ancestors would disappear with it.

Field trips have been successful for the purposes of educating members about the imminent challenges that are endangering Egmont Key. On these trips, they have the opportunity to witness for themselves the progressive deterioration, and it allows for the THPO to create a dialogue with the community.

Kevin Holata, a tribal member, shared his feelings about Egmont Key’s painful past. “It is a sensitive story and some tribal members may be hurt, but it’s about our history and it needs to be known.” There have been strides to keep the island intact. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers successfully completed two beach re-nourishment projects which used dredged material from the Egmont Canal. But is it enough to stave off the growing consequences of climate change?

Figure 3.pngFigure 3. April 5th field trip, Tribal members and THPO staff embarking onto the shores of Egmont Key.

In the summer of 2017, Hurricane Irma came barreling across the state, wreaking massive damage to Florida’s coasts, uprooting millions of Floridians from their homes. At Egmont Key, gusts of up to 91 miles per hour were recorded at the weather station located on the island. Structures that were once covered by beachy white sand now lay bare from hurricane force winds. Artifacts previously located during archaeological fieldwork have now been displaced from wind erosion.

Joe Frank, STOF BC Board Representative noted other communities all across the state have felt or will feel the harsh reality of “accelerated-climate change”, as evidenced by rising waters, beach erosion, and intensifying hurricanes. Among these issues, sea-level rise will surely be a herculean challenge in the years to come as waters encroach on shorelines. They will eventually inundate places of cultural and historical significance along the coasts. Places such as Miami Beach are already dealing with flooding during high tides.

Joe Frank, STOF BC Board Representative noted other communities all across the state have felt or will feel the harsh reality of “accelerated-climate change”, as evidenced by rising waters, beach erosion, and intensifying hurricanes. Among these issues, sea-level rise will surely be a herculean challenge in the years to come as waters encroach on shorelines. They will eventually inundate places of cultural and historical significance along the coasts. Places such as Miami Beach are already dealing with flooding during high tides.

Thousands of sites are threatened. Based on data from the Florida Master Site File (a registry of all cultural sites in Florida), a simple increase of three feet of ocean waters from current levels will impact 16,015 cultural sites; a further increase to six feet of sea-level rise will impact 34,786 culturally significant sites. Sites like these are valuable teaching tools that not only remind us of past social injustices committed, but can also instruct us on the future of the planet. “In the normal ebb and flow of human civilizations, when you have to rebuild,” says Mr. Frank, speaking on imminent impacts of cultural sites, “it’s best to know what they tried in the past, so you don’t end up making the same mistakes again.”

Figure 4.jpgFigure 4. Screenshot of NOAA’s Sea Level Rise Prediction Model. In an “intermediate” scenario by 2060, waters will rise approximately to 2 feet (0.6 meters) which will inundate over half of the island. From https://coast.noaa.gov/digitalcoast/tools/slr

The Tribe cannot be alone in this fight. The U.S. must step up its commitment to renewable energy. It has to further invest in environmental sustainability to combat “accelerated-climate change” from human activity by utilizing alternative forms of energy. It should be a global effort. As Mr. Frank points out, “What it gets down to is, yes, America and the whole world has to do a better job utilizing solar energy. I think there are a lot of countries that jumped on the bandwagon, and the United States just has happened to be dragging butt right now, kind of last in line.” Not only would these long-term investments help protect sites like Egmont Key, but communities living along the edges of the coasts of the United States could take a sigh of relief.

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Figure 5. In the aftermath of Irma, beach sand washed out into the Gulf uncovering an underground sand barrier to help slow down erosion at Egmont Key.

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Telling Our Stories Gains Momentum

By Carrie Dilley, Visitor Services and Development Manager and Macey Markowitz, Development Associate

Here on our blog we like to give our readers a sneak peek behind-the-scenes and share the “how” and the “why” behind what we do.  We constantly strive to find new ways to share the Seminole story and help preserve Seminole history.  It’s critical that we stay relevant in the Seminole community and in the Museum field as a whole.

We opened our doors in 1997 and helped make a name for tribal museums across the country.  Over the past 20 years we have created and hosted top-notch exhibits and programs, and vastly increased our collection.  But over the past few years there’s been a desire to do more.  Share more. Exhibit more.  Educate more.

In 2015, we officially embarked on a journey to tell more of the Seminole story within our four walls.  Our current exhibits are great, but they are limited in their scope and only tell a small part of the overall story.  We try to fill in some of the gaps by utilizing our temporary exhibition spaces to highlight topics not covered in our permanent galleries, but we still lack the opportunity to completely immerse our visitors in Seminole history and culture.

By working directly with the Seminole community, our Exhibits team has overseen the development of a plan that utilizes the existing overall space to provide a dynamic experience full of oral histories, vivid imagery, and facets of culture that help us fulfill our mission.  In the exhibit redesign plan, the exterior of the Museum will remain unchanged, but the interior of the structure will be completely re-imagined save for the library, archives, and restrooms.  Studio Techtonic, the exhibition design firm we hired to head up the project, has just completed the schematic plans, which ready us for the next phase in the process—development of the construction documents.  We anticipate we have another 2-3 years until the project is complete, but we grow more excited with each step.

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Last year we launched Telling Our Stories, an $8 million campaign to make the redesign project a reality.  We are proud of what we accomplished and well aware that we couldn’t have done it alone. With the continued support of our donors and the Seminole Tribe of Florida we have reached our initial 500K milestone.

Please make a gift to Telling Our Stories Campaign today to preserve one of the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s most definitive cultural resources.  You can help us ensure that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy the powerful stories the Museum has to tell. Your tax-deductible gift to the Telling Our Stories Campaign, in any amount, impacts our work. Thank you for your continued support.

If you would like to learn more about how you can help us meet our goals, please contact us at: (carriedilley@semtribe.com) or (maceymarkowitz@semtribe.com), or simply visit www.ahtahthiki.com/donate!

Telling Our Stories Logo

A Tasty Sneak Peek of our Next Exhibit

By Rebecca Fell, Curator of Exhibits

The Museum puts up, on average, six new exhibits each year. Many of the exhibits feature items from the collection or from artists and students within the Tribal community. However, one particular exhibit always focusses on important themes or aspect of Seminole culture. This year, the staff took on the interesting but weighty topic of Tribal sovereignty in the exhibit We Are Here: Voices & Hands Making Community Happen.

There are many ways to talk about the Tribe’s right to govern themselves and what that looks like. But, to keep it relevant to most visitors, the exhibit will focus on the way sovereignty appears in day to day activities. The exhibit will also look at frequently asked visitor questions and set about answering them, because these are often really just questions about how the Seminoles are both similar and different from the rest of American culture.

The questions answered are:

  1. How does the community stay healthy?
  2. How does the community stay safe?
  3. How do Tribal members share information and knowledge?
  4. How is housing developed for Tribal members?
  5. How are the Tribe’s resources, water, and land managed?

This exhibit will share information on how these common human aspects are achieved in the Seminole communities with the assistance of the Seminole government. Interactive opportunities will allow visitors to understand how sovereignty is ingrained in daily activities and something all can participate in.

For instance, health is an important aspect of Seminole culture, an aspect that involves all generations. At the Boys & Girls Club, an after-school activity shows children how to build a healthy snack by teaching them to make parfaits and trail mixes using portion control. In the exhibit, We Are Here: Voices & Hands Making Community Happen, the exhibits team is making the “Build A Healthy Snack Interactive,” which gives visitors an opportunity to learn about building their own trail mix in healthy proportions.

Surely the Museum could have hired an exhibition fabricator to build such an interactive, but what is the fun in that?

Instead, the exhibits team gets the fun of gluing food to a board:

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making molds of the food:

and then painting food!

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Here is a planned drawing from the layout and design:

Health Section - TrailMix Interactive

Come check out We Are Here: Voices & Hands Making Community Happen on June 11th. And don’t worry about the calories from the (fake) trail mix. There will be a tricycle interactive for you to try and see if you can beat the cycling time of Seminole seniors from their annual Trike Fest.

 

Fashion, Beauty, and the Challenge of Identification: A Seminole Tribune Story

 

By Tara Backhouse, Collections Manager

 

Here at the Museum we’ve partnered with the Seminole Tribune, the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s own newspaper, to care for thousands of photographs that their hardworking reporters took for the Tribe for over 30 years.  From STOF events and community milestones, to personal vacations and news from Indian Country, these reporters really went to the ends of the earth in order to document decades of happenings.  You can imagine that is a lot of photos.  We estimate there are around 30,000!  Since they were transferred to the Museum in 2015 we’ve been working hard to get them cataloged and into our database, so that we can keep track of them and preserve them for the future.  I’m happy to report that we are almost halfway there, with over 15,000 cataloged into our database!  This is impressive if you consider that these are not the only objects we’re cataloging.  Seminole history doesn’t stop, and neither do we!  Come see us if you want to learn how and why we take care of the things we take care of.  It is definitely an eye-opener for most people.

 

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A screenshot from our collections management database: this is what a well identified photograph looks like in our system

These days, photographs are digital, and the newspaper has no need for our services with their current work. However, we are happy to help care for the pictures they took in the past, because they are a treasure trove of information about recent Tribal life and activities.  It’s our mission to help preserve those things, and it’s also our mission to bring this history back to anyone in the community who wants it.  One of the ways we do this is by providing copies of photographs in our collection to community members who want pictures of themselves or families.  In order to do this, we need to gather identifications, because not all of the photos come with any identifying information.  Getting photographs identified is harder than it sounds, and that’s because of the number of photographs we’re working with, and the fact that we have to preserve them once they are cataloged, and they can’t be traveled around and handled by lots of people.

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By storing photographs and documents in acid-free containers, out of direct light, and in conditions of stable temperature and humidity, we can ensure these objects last for generations

 

We can overcome the latter problem by showing people copies or digital versions of the photographs at a community event, for example, but it’s still an issue of scale. We can’t spread out 30,000 photographs on a table, so we have to choose a selection to take with us.

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This is just some of the 30,000 photographs we took custody of in 2015 and we had quite an organizational job ahead of us before cataloging could take place

And choosing the best selection of photographs is difficult. The people we run into may not know anything about the selection we have chosen to share at that time, but they might be very familiar with a selection of photographs that is waiting back at the Museum.  That is why the online collections section of our website comes in handy.  Here, people can search for names, places and events in order to find photographs they are interested in:

http://semtribe.pastperfectonline.com/

OnlineCollections

 

Other ways we can share smaller subsets of pictures are through the Seminole Tribune itself, and through the Museum’s blog! (Hint: that’s what I’m doing now)

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Recently I came across just one such subset. Last month I cataloged a bunch of similar portrait-style close-up photographs of well-dressed people.

 

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People are often wearing patchwork or other types of traditional Seminole clothing and posing thoughtfully for the pictures.

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 Traditional clothing is a popular category at STOF clothing contests, and in this portrait Jimmy O’Toole Osceola wears an early 20th century style bigshirt and turban combination (ATTK Catalog No. 2015.6.13240)

 

Maybe they were doing this because they were all ready to participate in a clothing contest, such as the ones held every year Tribal Fair.  People spend a lot of time making clothing for these contests and then get together to show them off and compete in categories. Indeed, some of the photographs are labeled with the initials “TF96” on the back, and we know that refers to the Tribal Fair celebration in 1996.

 

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This portrait of an unidentified man wearing a patchwork jacket and cowboy hat was taken at the Seminole Tribe of Florida Tribal Fair celebration in 1996 (ATTK Catalog No. 2015.6.14286)

But we’re not sure that all these photographs were taken at a Tribal Fair event. Clothing contests also take place at other times and on other reservations.  And some may not have been taking during contests at all.

 

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Rita Gopher takes part in a clothing contest in Immokalee in 1999 (ATTK Catalog Numbers 2015.6.14274 and .14275

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As the Museum and THPO’s first executive director, Billy L. Cypress often showed off traditional garb like this, so this photograph could have been taken at any number of events (ATTK Catalog No. 2015.6.13280)

 

We wonder how often the newspaper was in the habit of taking such stunning pictures of so many photogenic folks? Was it only for a couple of years?  Could it be for at any event or any location? Do you know any of the people that we haven’t identified in this blog?  Any information we can gather helps us preserve and share the past.

These are nice portraits, and we imagine that if you were the subject of one, you probably didn’t get a copy at the time.  It wasn’t that easy 15 or 20 years ago, when film had to be commercially developed and printed.  These days we can make digital copies quickly and we’d be happy to do that for you.  Maybe you’re looking for a nice photo of a family member?  Or maybe you just want to see what the Seminole Tribune reporters were up to from the 1980’s to the early 2000’s.  The easiest way to see our photographs is to browse over 11,000 through the online collections on our website.  Try this shortened link to bring up just the Seminole Tribune photograph collection:

 

https://tinyurl.com/y86latru

 

But if you’re in the area, you can also come to the Museum library to see the photographs.  We’re happy to help and it’s easier if you make an appointment.  Just call 863-902-1113 and ask for the Library.   See you soon!

Found in the Swamp: The Search for Fort Shackelford Part II

By Domonique deBeaubien, THPO Collections Manager

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you may remember a special story titled “Lost in the Swamp: the Search for Fort Shackelford,” where Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) Archaeologist, Shawn Keyte, recounted the harrowing challenges of locating a U.S. Army fort burned to the ground in 1855 by the Seminoles living on Big Cypress.

This winter, THPO Archaeologists Shawn Keyte and Dave Scheidecker continued their search to locate the lost fort.  Shawn and Dave, along with the rest of the Tribal Archaeology crew, were committed to finding the long lost fort. After a long and fruitless field season of metal detection, former THPO Research Coordinator Rechanda Lee commented that the only place they hadn’t looked yet was under the truck.  So that’s exactly what they did!

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The Truck: Sometimes archaeology is underneath it.

Surprisingly, this unusual methodology led to an exciting discovery: square cut nails from the 1800s!  THPO Archaeologists were so encouraged by this find that they put in several new test units to further explore what may be hidden under the surface.

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Archaeologist Shawn Keyte holding a hand-cut square nail found during metal detection.

A test unit is a small square shaped area where archaeologists excavate down carefully, layer by layer, until they hit bedrock.  This helps them see changes in the soil, and accurately document any artifacts that they may find. This new test unit yielded a very exciting discovery:  a burned piece of wood! This may not seem like much, but many 19th century forts were constructed entirely of wood. While we had located a few metal nails and objects that may have dated to the correct time period, what our archaeologists really wanted to find was evidence of the structure itself.  As the crew continued their work, they began to see a series of dark oval stains in the soil, each about the size of a post. As they continued to excavate, they realized that remnants of the posts were actually still preserved! According to Archaeologist Shawn Keyte, this post may have formed part of the stockade (or fence) surrounding the wooden blockhouse.  Officers would have kept quarters in the more robust blockhouse, while soldiers would have erected tents within the confines of the stockade.

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Test Unit 9, with brown oval features and dark ashy soils.

As exciting as this discovery was, the team wanted to ensure that the artifacts were removed from the ground safely. Robin Croskery Howard, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Conservator, was called out to the site to help extract some of the wood for lab testing and preservation. Finding preserved wood in the Everglades is a rare occurrence. As wood ages in a moist and acidic environment, it often loses its structural integrity and rapidly decomposes. Our team wanted to be extra sure their find didn’t crumble to pieces after exposure to the air!  Shawn, Dave, and Robin worked carefully to extract the wood, as well as collect a sample of the dark soil surrounding each of the posts.

Once back in the THPO Lab, the Collections team set to work.  To get the most precise results possible, we often use radiocarbon dating.  In these instances we send out organic material, like animal bone or charcoal, and measure the amount of Carbon-14 left in the sample.  When a piece of wood is burned, the Carbon-14 in the object begins to slowly break down at a consistent rate.  Scientists are able to measure the amount of Carbon-14 present, and compare it to closely calibrated charts and determine a very precise age. If you look carefully at the soil in the test unit, it’s very dark compared to the light colored soils found nearby.  Such an intense darkening of the soil was caused by a large quantity of ash and charcoal produced by a fire.  The soil sample was packaged up and sent off to a lab in hope that they could extract enough charcoal in the soil to perform C-14 testing to determine when the fire occurred.

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Soil sample from Test Unit 9, with charcoal flecking

In addition to the soil, we also sent out a large piece from one of the wooden posts.  The lab will first use a high powered microscope to determine what type of tree the post was made from, and then use a small segment of the wood sample for C-14 dating!

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The carefully extracted wood sample. Is this part of the Fort Shackelford stockade?

We haven’t received all of the results yet, but some are in!  The charcoal in the soil sample dated to 1840 +/- 30 years.   This is exactly the date range we were hoping for!  This places our charcoal right around the time Fort Shackelford was destroyed, 1855.  While we anxiously await the results of our second C-14 date, we are left to wonder, did we find Fort Shackelford?  The Tribal Archaeology Section heads back out this April to continue the search. Check back soon to find out more!