As the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s new girl on the block (I’ve been working here less than four months) I have been learning every day about issues impacting the Tribe. NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) is one of those issues. Domonique deBeaubien, the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) Collections Manager, who deals with this federal code every day, has this to say:
The current state of NAGPRA is varied across the US, with some institutions ready and willing to do the right thing, with others lagging behind the curve. The Smithsonian however, doesn’t fall under NAGPRA. Their repatriation policy is guided by the NMAI Act, which requires very little of Smithsonian Museums with regards to repatriation procedures, and is well behind nationally accepted museum best practices. The Smithsonian’s lack of Native inclusivity in their repatriation process is rooted in the inherent colonialism of academia, which is something we are fighting to change.
The following article is very relevant right now. It looks more critically at the African American Museum, but it certainly can be applied here: https://tinyurl.com/yxhlar2s
The Museum has recently been called upon to work with the THPO to assert and document the Seminole Tribe’s true history. Seminoles and their ancestors have inhabited Florida for thousands of years, not for only the last 150 years as written in most history books. We recently utilized our archival collection to further this research and to provide objective information pertaining to this subject. We discovered key pieces of information and provided them to a Smithsonian representative to further validate the evidence of the Seminole’s longstanding Florida roots. This information, along with oral histories and other academic work, is being taken back to the Smithsonian Institution to support our continuing efforts to have the Tribe’s ancestors returned home.
According to Mary Beth Rosebrough, Research Coordinator for the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum:
This is the time when the Seminole Tribe of Florida is re-writing history, setting aside what has been written in schoolbooks and perpetuated by the media. American military history tells the story of three Seminole Wars. To the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the descendants of those that evaded capture and removal, it was one long War – 40-plus years of turmoil and harassment and conflict. The Seminole Tribe of Florida is also proclaiming its ancestry, not just as people who migrated from northern states, but as descendants of those earlier tribes known to archaeologists as the Calusa, the Apalachee, the Tequesta, etc. Both of these changes are critical to a new understanding that Tribal history belongs to those who lived it yet deserves to be universally heard.
In helping the Seminole Tribe of Florida bring their ancestors home and in helping to re-write history, I am fortunate every day to be involved in something bigger than myself.
As we spring forward on the Big Cypress Reservation, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum continues to grow with the seasons, as well. Our Museum staff has participated in a flurry of Tribal events and festivals this season with the goal of being an active part of the community. While our staff takes care of their day-to-day duties on the Museum grounds, we also have the mission of engaging directly with the Seminole community in a proactive way. Participating in events like the annual Tribal Fair, Seminole Shootout, and the Swamp Cabbage festival is a great way to conduct outreach with our constituency. Plus, there always tends to be great food to enjoy, as well!
In the spirit of being active community members, the museum is embarking on another initiative to bring our programs and services to the Seminole people. We have renovated a former Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building located on the Big Cypress Reservation that until recently operated as the local pool hall. In the coming months we will open the To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne Community Center as an extension of the Museum itself. To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne translates to “a place to gather” or “a gathering place” and has been deemed an appropriate name for this newly renovated facility.
Specifically, the new community center will have a central focus on the oral history program and serve as a space where Tribal Members can feel welcome and comfortable to share and record their histories. We want to be sure that the building has a feel of a relative’s living room where conversation and a natural sharing of stories can happen without having to maneuver and find space on the main Museum campus. We will also have space to showcase our library’s large collection of photographs featuring Tribal Members as far back as the 1920’s from the various reservations.
The building is large enough to accommodate several of our traveling exhibit pop up banners that present Seminole life and history. Additionally, we have kept the gaming aspect of the building providing pin ball machines, foosball, and two pool tables open to the Seminole community.
Lastly, the To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne Community Center will serve as an additional space on the reservation for birthday parties, cook outs, Tribal community and Council meetings, Museum staff meetings, and will be made available whenever the need to gather arises. The center will also serve as a place to post Tribal and tourist announcements for events, programs, and other happenings. As we finish the last touch ups to the building, please be on the look out for firm opening dates and events. We are excited for this opportunity to extend our Museum directly to the Seminole community and to have more open doors to share the Museum with visitors. The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki is proud to serve the Seminole people and provide an educational center to the world at large eager to learn about Seminole and Florida history.
The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s mission is simple but broad: to celebrate, preserve, and interpret Seminole Culture and History. It’s a beautiful mission and it’s a privilege to be able to dedicate so much of my life to its sentiments. To be able to do it right, and I hope that we are, takes a lot of thought, analysis and action. It’s not a simple thing, because culture and history are complex and all-encompassing. Our focus in history covers a relatively small part of the world (the southeastern United States) and a very small part of the time that history has been happening, generally the last few hundred years. However, the Seminole slice of history is still vast, rich and multifaceted. We cannot tell the Seminole story quickly or easily. It cannot be done in one exhibit, one blog, one tour, or through one historic object! As the Collections Manager, that is my main concern: the historic objects. Additional devoted team members head up those other aspects, but we all work together to make sure we do our best with the same mission.
Unpuzzling the Past
If you’re familiar with Seminole history, there are a lot of things you may recognize immediately as essential to our mission: a piece of patchwork, a doll or basket, and perhaps a historic photograph or postcard.
We’re happy when we uncover a piece of Seminole history and culture that we haven’t talked about in a public forum. It’s not always obvious if an object that’s offered to us is relevant to Seminole history, and we have to scratch our heads and think outside the box at times like this. This is what happened in 2017 when we were contacted by a Mr. Sigfried R. Second-Jumper, aka Siggy Jumper. Mr. Jumper told us he had a drum made by Thomas Storm Sr., and that it would be a great addition to our Museum.
We recognized this object immediately as the type of drum used in western Native American drum circles. But a Seminole drum circle? We’d never heard of that. With Mr. Jumper’s help we learned that Cypress Prairie, the drum circle he participated in from 1998-2001, was a collaboration between Seminole and other native people, and that helped us to understand that it was indeed an important part of the Seminole story.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida has welcomed the traditions of other tribes for at least 100 years. Around the turn of the 19th century, Seminole people became involved in tourist attractions that featured their own cultural traditions packaged in a way that tourists would appreciate and pay for. In turn, people working in those camps were exposed to totem poles and other forms of art that weren’t traditionally Seminole. So, they adapted and took on some of those traditions.
Some people say that things like totem poles need to be thought of differently, that they are not Seminole, because they originated on the west coast of North America. But in my opinion, that’s a very narrow viewpoint. History doesn’t stop, and culture changes constantly. And why should Seminole artists have been exclusionary in the early 20th century, when they saw totem poles and admired them? After all, new skills helped Seminole people make money. Anything that helped Seminole people gain economic independence after a devastating century needs to be appreciated. For these reasons, we have totem poles in our collection.
Showcasing Talent and Traditions
Tribal Fairs and Pow Wows are other venues through which Seminole people have long celebrated native talent from far and wide. Whether it is fancy dancers from the Great Plains or fire dancers from Mexico, all these performance traditions show the pride and resilience of native peoples who were disrespected, persecuted, subjugated, massacred and driven out of their homelands over a 300-hundred-year period. So, it seems natural to me that native people would want to share the beauty that survived with each other, and that people from one tribe would learn the dances and music of another tribe.
Drum circles have also been a feature at Seminole events for many decades. Some of the pictures in our historic collection illustrate the healing power of musical traditions like this.
If you need assistance, give us a call at 863-902-1113 and ask for the Collections Division.
If you can, come see us at the Museum on Big Cypress! Objects from the Siggy R. Second-Jumper collection are on display until April 4th, 2019. In the Selections from the Collections gallery you can read about his extraordinary story and you can be inspired by the beautiful music that Cypress Prairie created. We will continue to collect stories like his that show the wealth and variety of Seminole life, so that we can do the best job possible to celebrate, preserve, and interpret Seminole Culture and History. We need your help to make it happen. Please contact us if you’re interested in helping tell the Tribe’s story!
One seemingly ordinary day in mid-September, I sat down to check my email as I do every morning, expecting not to find anything out of the ordinary. Imagine my surprise when I got a wonderful email from a couple who were in possession of a 19th century beaded sash with an amazing story.
It was in an old brown envelope that read: “J. Bryan Grimes, Secretary of State, Raleigh, N.C.”. Handwritten upon the envelope was “Osceola’s Sash.”
A separate typed tag attached to the belt:
The end of the email expressed kind and gracious sentiments:
We would like to return this precious artifact to its rightful owner, the Seminole Tribe of Florida. We feel it should be displayed for all to admire. May it help bring the reality of Osceola’s life and accomplishments as a war hero and First Nations chief into the forefront of public awareness.
Not Everything is as it Appears
As the Collections Manager for the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, part of my job is to acquire historic objects for the museum collection. I’ve been involved in this process for over 10 years, so I’ve seen quite a few offers presented to the Tribe. Some have been great pieces of Seminole history that we’re proud to accept, and many have come at little or no cost to the Tribe. But there have also been many disappointments: Art and artifacts that aren’t what they were advertised to be; priceless pieces that come with too high of a price; and people who aren’t what they claim to be! When someone offers to donate something valuable to the Museum, they often change their tune during the process, and we end up not being able to seal the deal. Not only that, but a historical claim like the one on the tag is very hard to prove. Osceola is a great Seminole War hero, and many people claim they have something that belonged to him. Only a fraction of these things turn out to be real possibilities. So, I had all that in the back of my mind when I started to converse with Joseph and Laralyn Riverwind, as well as Melba Checote-Eads, who sent me the email. Imagine how thrilled I was to learn that the Riverwinds are kind and honest people, who would never mislead the Seminole Tribe or anyone else. They had been themselves surprised to be given the sash by an acquaintance who had purchased the belt during an estate sale. They were entrusted to do the right thing, and to make sure the belt got the appreciation and care that it deserved.
While waiting for the donation to arrive, the staff at the Museum set about researching the information on the tag, and the style and colors of the belt, in order to tie it to Osceola’s history. We found out that Francis T. Bryan was a soldier under Zachary Taylor, and that J. Bryan Grimes Jr. was the Secretary of State of North Carolina for the first couple decades of the 20th century. So, it was a good first step to verify the history of those men. We also researched the objects that are known to have belonged to Osceola, when he was captured under a white flag of truce near St. Augustine, FL in October 1837, and then when he was imprisoned by the U.S. Army later that year in South Carolina at Fort Moultrie. While in prison, Osceola sat for three artists. They painted and drew several portraits, and that’s why we have a realistic idea of what he looked like and what he wore at that time. In this 1838 George Catlin painting of the warrior, the tassels of a dark green or blue belt are visible around his waist. The belt in this painting bears a striking resemblance to the belt that was gifted.
Osceola owned a range of clothing and accessories when he was imprisoned. Sadly, he passed away in 1838, shortly after he met with the artists. However, other scholars have done a lot to research his possessions that were documented at that time. As the most knowledgeable researcher says on this subject, “the subject of the belts, sashes, pouches, and garters which may have belonged to Osceola is a very confusing one.” (Wickman 1991:176) In “Osceola’s Legacy,” Pat Wickman reports that five belts of Osceola were mentioned in written works or appear in his portraits. Wickman was only able to find the history of three of those belts, and of those three, only one is currently verified to exist. (As it happens, that particular beaded and finger woven belt is already part of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki’s collection).
The Belt Arrives at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum
We were finally able to see the belt in person when the donors brought it to Big Cypress and unveiled in in front of Council and Board representatives, interested community members, and Museum and Tribal Historic Preservation Office staff. We were all stunned and left speechless by what we saw.
The belt is olive and dark brown in color, and is tightly woven in a diamond pattern. Its tassels are covered with extremely small white seed beads. The belt is undeniably old, and is very fragile. There was no doubt that the belt carries with it much history and power. Our leaders, advisors, and visitors all spoke about the deep emotions that came with this donation. Humility, gratefulness, poignancy and happiness were shared by all. We noted with amazement that next week will be the 180th anniversary of Osceola’s capture. What a fitting time to welcome his belt home!
At the viewing, we displayed a copy of Catlin’s painting. We shared our thoughts and research. Historical research is not an exact science. We’ll continue to research this belt and its story, and hopefully we’ll find more evidence to connect it with Osceola. We’re happy to say at this time that the belt appears to date to the early 1800’s. It looks likely that Osceola owned a belt of this style and color. We at the Museum vow to take steps to preserve this priceless object and to make it accessible to our community. Please contact us if you would like to see it. We only ask for your patience with our preservation process. We are here to bring Seminole history to you and future generations, and we’d love to explain how we do that in person.
1991 Wickman, Patricia R. Osceola’s Legacy. The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa
The Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Big Cypress Reservation is a well-established tourist destination located in the Florida Everglades. Each day I witness the reservation’s popularity as I say hello and welcome visitors to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. Travelers from across the globe to the local Floridians like students and tourists make their way to the Big Cypress Reservation to have a good time and experience a little slice of Seminole life.
Big Cypress enjoys warm weather year-round. Visitors have a good time here as they visit Billie Swamp Safari and eat nuggets made from gator tail after a day of touring the Florida Everglades in a swamp buggy or airboat. Guests join in the fun at numerous events like the upcoming American Indian Arts Celebration on November 2-3 while visiting the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. Guests are reminded as they sip their Kool-Aid at Sweet Tooth Café or sample fry bread at the Swamp Water Café that the Big Cypress is also home to many Seminole people. The Seminole Tribe has a proud history and culture that was once purposefully closed off the rest of the world by the Seminole people themselves.
As the Oral History Coordinator, I have the privilege of understanding Seminole history and culture with a bit more insight than the average visitors that make their way to the Florida Everglades and Big Cypress. After all, one of the main facets of my job is to interview Tribal community members about their life growing up Seminole and to record oral histories passed down from generation to generation.
These interviews are either audio or video recordings which are then accessioned and archived into the Museum’s oral history collection. Some of these recordings may be restricted and are only to be viewed or heard by Seminole tribal members, while others are available for researches or used as supplemental material for museum exhibits. The mission of the Oral History Program is to preserve historical and contemporary Seminole life for the future generations of Seminole people.
Many of the oral histories that Seminole community members share with our program talk about a time of survival when fighting against encroachment on their ancestral lands from Spain and the United States. The Seminole historical figures from the Seminole War such as Osceola, Abiaka, and Micanopy are indeed legendary.
These great leaders fought hard to maintain and preserve their Seminole way of life and hold on to the land of their ancestors. Many other oral histories chronicle happier times like the stomp dances, birthdays, social gatherings and everyday contemporary life. After all, the Florida Everglades and Big Cypress Reservation are home to these stories and to a thriving Seminole culture.
There is certainly a lot to experience and learn while visiting the Seminole Big Cypress Reservation. Additionally, you can also visit other Seminole Reservations in Hollywood, Brighton, Immokalee, Ft. Pierce and Tampa. Just keep an eye out for the bears, panthers, and gators and remind yourself that you are visiting the home of the great Seminole!