The Importance of “Where”

By Lacee Cofer, THPO Chief Data Analyst

Whether it’s researching a Seminole event that happened 100 years ago, or consulting with a federal agency on a project set to happen this year, we always ask the question, “Where?” The importance of place is integral to the work of the Seminole Tribe of Florida Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO). This is where the THPO Archaeometry team comes into play, to create maps to show exactly “where” things are happening.  The team is taking a unique approach to mapping in one of our biggest projects yet –an Ethnographic Study of the Seminole Tribe of Florida in the South Florida region.

Figure 1. Map depicting approximate project study area

An Ethnographic Study, or Ethnography, is a description of a group of people and their customs. THPO is taking a new approach to the concept of an ethnography to describe the Seminole Tribe of Florida, their customs, and how those customs relate to the utilization of land and water in the Everglades. Considering this, the team is seeking to protect the important cultural and environmental resources from future impacts due to Everglades restoration projects initiated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Multiple USACE projects fall within the identified study area, however the study area goes beyond current project boundaries, aiding in its relevancy for future use. The goal is to utilize information compiled during the study to aid the Tribe in federal consultation projects that affect the future of the Everglades.

Figure 2. Work being done to drain the Everglades in 1906

So what does an Ethnographic Study have to do with mapping? A whole lot, actually! While the final document will contain maps that show areas of interest and concern for the Tribe, we first have to collect locational information from the Tribal Community that is shareable and does not contain any sensitive data that the community would like to keep private. This method of mapping, or collecting spatial data from community members, is called participatory mapping.

The THPO has had a strong participatory mapping program for several years. This includes using paper maps and having Tribal Members draw locations of significant events, camps, or other cultural resources onto the maps. Once a Tribal Member provides us this information, we digitize and secure the data to keep it safe and private and archive the paper maps for safe keeping. These maps are only accessible to a limited number of staff, but are available for Tribal member use.

Figure 3. Quenton Cypress works the participatory mapping booth at the 2015 Big Cypress Cattle Drive

We are hoping to have strong participation from members of the community to provide spatial data in relation to the Ethnographic Study. Our goal is for this project to bridge the communication gap between the Tribe and outside agencies whose projects impact the land. We want to reduce the confusion caused by unfamiliar terminology by using place names known to the Tribal community. The Tribe’s voice will be strengthened, and the connection the Tribe has to the land and water will be understood and respected by outside agencies during their consultations.

To help explain the project to the community, provide an opportunity for feedback, and request participation, the Ethnographic Study team is in the process of creating a Story Map to do just that. The Story Map will describe the Ethnographic Study, current federal projects the Tribe is consulting on, staff working on the project, and how to get involved! Keep an eye out for the upcoming Story Map, and you may have the opportunity to help us answer the question, “Where?” If you have any questions about participatory mapping at the THPO, please contact Chief Data Analyst, Lacee Cofer, at

Dear Sally, What’s It Like Being an Alligator During the Coronavirus?

By Carrie Dilley, Visitor Services and Development Manager

While the domesticated animals in our lives (particularly our dogs, maybe less so our cats) have enjoyed seeing us all day during these recent times, have you wondered how our free roaming friends have been faring?  Our Alligator Pen Pal program, launched on April 13th, brings Sally, our resident alligator, into the homes and hearts of people everywhere. Sally has brought smiles to the faces of Museum staff and visitors for years, and now people who may not be able to see Sally in person can interact with her through handwritten or email correspondence.  People can chose to either write Sally a letter and send it to the Museum, or send an email to us at:  Everyone who writes to Sally receives a personalized letter or email in return.

We have been trying to come up with fun ways to reach our community during the closure and engage in new and interesting ways.  The Alligator Pen Pal program is just one of a number of new activities that we have launched in the past few months.  Our education coordinator created numerous games and puzzles, along with a guided painting activity, which have been distributed on our social media channels.  These activities bring our exhibits and collection into people’s homes.  Although the Alligator Pen Pal program is intended to keep youth and adults alike occupied during the closure, we don’t plan to stop the program once we resume normal business operations.

So far the program has been very well received.  Most of the senders have asked her specific questions including: what she looks like, how she likes being an alligator, what kind of toys she likes, does she like bacon, and does she like cars?  The letters are signed with love and many include drawings.  It has been great to see the support and appreciation of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki, especially during this challenging time.

We are currently promoting the program on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  Reach out to Sally today—she’s sure to write you back!

Working from home in the age of Coronavirus

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and Tribal Historic Preservation Office are currently shut down so that we can do our part to #flattenthecurve through #socialdistancing. Those staff members who are able to, are currently working from home #WFH. So, what are they working on and how is it going?

Read below to find out!

Dave Scheidecker, THPO Research Coordinator

What are you working on at home?  I’m conducting historical research for the Ethnography project, meaning I’m doing a deep dive into research on pretty much all of Seminole history. I’m primarily concentrating on the pre-colonial and Spanish colonial periods at the moment, because that’s where we have the least material in our archives.

What are you enjoying about working from home?  Almost everything. Being in a t-shirt and shorts, no commute, being able to blast music while I work, and being able to freely cook for lunch.

What do you miss from the office?  Having people to talk to about work and research in person. I much prefer in person talk over online or phone.

What challenges are you facing?  Self-discipline. I’m working in my room, so every distraction I could want is freely available. Research can get very boring, and the urge to pick up a game controller “just for 5 minutes” is so very strong.

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Dave, when he found he would be working from home.

Victoria Menchaca, Compliance Review Specialist

What are you working on at home?  Fortunately, most of my work involves reviewing project reports and responding via email. So, I am pretty much doing the same things I would normally do just minus any in person meetings.

What are you enjoying about working from home?  Not having to wake up so early, not having to drive so much or so far, being able to cook my meals fresh at home, being able to exercise on my lunch break, being able to let my dogs out whenever they want, being able to dress however I want…lots of things!

What do you miss from the office?  I am more of an introvert, but I do miss some of the social interaction. I also miss my very nice stand up desk and my large monitors! Oh and I miss the boardwalk too!

What challenges are you facing?  Trying to keep my 6 month old cat off my keyboard! And, it is a little lonely =(

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Victoria’s furry friend “helping” her at work

Alyssa Boge, Education Coordinator

 What are you working on at home?  I’m focusing on social media and trying to deliver new opportunities highlighting our resources. I’m also working on projects I haven’t had time to get to.

What are you enjoying about working from home?  No shoes! Sleeping in later. Taking kitty breaks.

What do you miss from the office?  Dave making coffee in the morning… Taking walks on the boardwalk. Chatting with coworkers.

What challenges are you facing?  I’m used to managing groups and having a lot of things that need immediate action. Without the same type of urgency, focusing is a little harder.

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Alyssa’s co-worker asleep on the job

Ellen, Head of Security

What are you working on?  I am fortunate that I am on Campus 4 days a week so I feel somewhat “normal” then.

What are you enjoying about working from home?  I enjoy my time at home because I can get a lot of uninterrupted work done that I usually don’t have the opportunity to sit long enough to do.

What do you miss from the office?  I miss the comradery. I like bouncing ideas off my coworkers and appreciate their input.

What challenges are you facing?  I am able to still keep an eye on the campus through my cameras however it is not the same as being hands on.

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Ellen’s industrious co-worker

Internship with the Museum and THPO

By Kara DiComo, Intern

While studying anthropology in college I learned a lot about museums. From their overall history, their triumphs and failures, and how they grow and change with time. It was at this time that I first learned about the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki museum and how it served as a place for the Seminole Tribe to tell their history their way. During this time, I also learned about the Seminole Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) and how they actively work to preserve, document, and promote Seminole history.

I found the Museum and the THPO to be inspirational as I continued on with my studies, and when I finished my undergraduate degree I decided to reach out about an internship. I started interning with the Seminole THPO in late November 2019. At first I mainly worked with the Tribal Archaeology Section (TAS) where I assisted a team of archaeology field technicians on a survey project on the Brighton reservation. This consisted of hours out in the field trekking through hammocks of various densities and sizes digging thousands of test pits. It was exhausting work, and I often returned home drained and sore; but all of the work felt more than worth it whenever we pulled fragmented remains of artifacts out of the earth that could lead to something bigger down the line. In December, I ended up moving from fieldwork to lab work, mainly due to a sprained ankle, and began interning with both Museum and THPO Collections. Most of my days spent with Museum Collections consisted of working with historic newspapers and photographs that concern the Seminole Tribe.

Kara DiComo
Kara working with photographs from the Museum’s collection

There truly is nothing like handling old and often fragile pieces of paper that serve as bits and pieces of a whole story, knowing that these papers that were never intended to last for long will continue to be preserved and will thus be accessible to the community for essentially forever. With THPO Collections, I spent a lot of time washing the dirt and grime off of objects that had recently arrived from the field, however I also got to spend some time learning about the housing process for objects such as glass bottles. I even got to put my carving and hot glue skills to the test while creating some custom housing for glass bottles that I had washed the previous week. In addition to Collections, in January I interned with the THPO Archaeometry section and got to learn more about how they use GIS technology to prepare for and assist with field research. This was particularly interesting since my baccalaureate thesis centered in the use of 3D photogrammetry in anthropology.

Overall the experiences I have had interning with the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s THPO and the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki museum have been invaluable and hopefully the skills that I have learned will be put to good use in my future endeavors.

NMAI: A Landmark Institution Working for Indian Country

By Tara Backhouse, Museum Collections Manager

Right here in South Florida, the Ah-Tah-Thi Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Reservation works hard to share the Seminole story and to represent the Tribe’s interests in all our work.  We are able to work with many museums and other institutions in Florida, and we help them tell the Seminole story to all their visitors.  But did you know there’s another museum that strives to do that for all of Indian Country?  It’s the National Museum of the American Indian, commonly known as NMAI, and you may not know that there’s been a connection between the Seminole Tribe of Florida and that institution for over two decades.

The striking National Museum of the American Indian sits prominently among other Smithsonian Museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC (ATTK Catalog No. xxxx)

Although NMAI opened the doors of its newest Washington DC facility in 2004, it has a much longer history.  Its first facility in New York City became part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1989.  Coincidentally, this was also when the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum was chartered and began building its collection.  At the time the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki opened in 1997, we had an extensive working relationship with NMAI.  The Tribe consulted with their professionals about how to build the world-class facility we now have on Big Cypress.  And when it came time to build our permanent exhibits, NMAI loaned us pieces from their collection in order to help us tell the Seminole story.

Early 20th Century silver jewelry borrowed from NMAI is on display in our exhibit about traditional Seminole camp life.



A silversmith can be seen working with a silver above the display of an early 20th century silverworker’s kit, also on loan from NMAI’s collection.

When they opened in Washington, DC, many tribes were very excited.  People from the Seminole Tribe joined others at the opening ceremonies to lead a procession on the National Mall to show their support.  The Seminole Tribe had a strong presence that included the Seminole Color Guard and Tribal government officials.

Helene Buster and Michelle Thomas carried the banner that led the Seminole contingent of the procession celebrating NMAI’s opening in 2004.  The Seminole color guard follows closely behind.


Connie Whidden and Michelle Thomas smile in a colorful crowd during the 2004 opening.  The Washington Monument can be seen behind them.

If you go to NMAI, you might be surprised that the Seminole Tribe is only represented in a small way.  Remember that NMAI has the responsibility of advocating for all the indigenous people represented in their collection.  That’s a big job.  Come to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki for a total Seminole focus.  Go to NMAI to broaden your horizons and see the connections that spring to life when you do that.

One of the most important ways that NMAI fights for native rights is in the area of repatriation.  Museums had long collected the remains of Native people without permission from their Tribes and in violation of their cultural traditions for caring for those who have passed on. Native peoples wanted and are still fighting for all Museums to return the remains of their people. Responding to outrage over the state of national repatriation efforts, the National Museum of the American Indian Act was enacted in 1989.  Under this law, the National Museum of the American Indian was established along with protocols for repatriating ancestors who had been wrongfully taken.  NMAI has led repatriation efforts within the Smithsonian Institution and has returned over 5000 ancestors to their homes, getting them out of the hands of the non-native institutions that have allowed research and other culturally insensitive treatment of those remains for many years.

But repatriation is a work in progress and many Seminole ancestors have still not been returned home.  NMAI does a great job with repatriation, but all the museums within the Smithsonian Institution are managed differently.  This is why the Seminole Tribe’s Museum and Tribal Historic Preservation Office have initiated the #NoMoreStolenAncestors campaign.  Join us in our fight to advocate for the return of Seminole ancestors at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  Our work and your voice will not only help to address historic and current offenses to the Seminole Tribe but also those committed against our fellow tribes across Indian country.  Thank you for your support!