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.

Figure1
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.

Figure2
Early 20th Century silver jewelry borrowed from NMAI is on display in our exhibit about traditional Seminole camp life.

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Figure4
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.

Figure5
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.

 

Figure6
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!

Museum Photographs Show us the Past to Help us Think about the Present and Look to the Future

By Tara Backhouse, Collections Manager

Happy Holidays to you and your families, from the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.  Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year are times for celebration, but also for recollection and thought.  We remember times gone by and we wonder what is to come.  These days we all have our own interests and activities, but it’s rewarding to come together and find a common ground at family gatherings.  While you enjoy the company of your family and all of the entertainment that the modern holidays offer, take a moment to think about the Seminole Tribe’s journey for the last 100 years.  This selection of the Museum’s historic photographs was chosen to show how amazing that journey has been.   The pictures show scenes from the early, middle and late 20th century.  These decades saw the journey from humble camp lives in rustic settings to hard work and economic success in the modern world. When we see how much things have changed during this time, we can only imagine what changes the future will bring. 

Figure 1

At a scenic camp in the Everglades in the 1930s or 40s, two men are taking a canoe out on a journey.  Others watch them leave.  Notice this camp has several canoes of different sizes.  Canoes were shared by the residents, and different sizes were needed for different kinds of trips. Times may have been tough, but living in a traditional way was fulfilling and rewarding. (ATTK Catalog No. 2001.34.8)

Figure 2

Mrs. Corey Osceola poses for a picture with her two children, at a chickee in 1942.  See how many things are in and around the chickee?  Mrs. Osceola had to have everything she needed for her family in that one place.  Not only that, but they probably stored many things in the rafters so that they could have a clear floor to sleep on at night.  Imagine if we had to do that today, and how many possessions we’d have to move. (ATTK Catalog No. 2005.27.39)

Figure 3

In the 1950’s education was a big priority.  The world was changing and government schools helped people learn new things. Annie Tiger, Joyce Osceola, Sadie Fewell, Addie Tommie, Betty Mae Osceola and Johnson Billie study hard in this adult education night class on the Big Cypress Reservation in 1957.  Education helped people start businesses and form a government. (ATTK Catalog No. 2009.34.508)

Figure 4

In 1957 members of the brand new Tribal Council and Board posed proudly for this picture.  Included are: Billy Osceola, Chairman of Council, Bill Osceola, President of the Board of Directors, Willie Frank, Toby Johns, Robert Osceola and Dan Osceola.  This was a proud moment born of hard work and a warrior spirit.  People like this didn’t let the U.S. government terminate the Tribe’s sovereign status.  They persevered and started a brand new type of government, which is now over 60 years old. (ATTK Catalog No. 2009.34.463)

Figure 5

Henry Nelson wrestles and alligator at Okalee Indian Village in 1960.  Talented wrestlers learned this skill to show it off to visiting tourists.  The mid 20th century tourism enterprises of the Tribe showed that the Tribe had the diverse ingenuity needed to succeed financially.  Ventures like Okalee led to the acquisition of Hard Rock International. (ATTK Catalog No. 2009.34.884)

Figure 6

Betty Mae Jumper was elected the first female Chairman of the Tribe in 1967.  The U.S. Government has yet to catch up with the Tribe, since no female president has been elected, even in 2019!  Betty Mae Jumper and Billy L. Cypress were both powerful advocates for Education.  In this photograph, Billy honors Betty Mae by interviewing her on a cable television show produced by the Museum in 1993. (ATTK Catalog No. GRP1828.10)

Figure 7

A young girl helps out her friend at this important Ahfachkee graduation in 2001.  The Seminole colors on their gowns symbolize the cultural pride that runs through everything that Seminole people do today.  The Tribe’s continued support of education is palpable at an event like this. (ATTK Catalog No. 2016.14.363)

Figure 8

When the Tribe broke ground for the Hollywood Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in 2001 using gold shovels, who would have thought that 18 years later they would still be masters of the brand, and that they would be opening the world’s first guitar-shaped hotel on the same spot! (ATTK Catalog No. 2016.14.101)

Figure 9

Today the vibrant colors of the Tribe can be seen at public events like this Hollywood Tribal Fair in 2001.  Seminole royalty advances during the grand procession.  Pictured are Joe Dan Osceola, Ambassador; Desiree Jumper, Miss Seminole; and Jo Jo Osceola, Junior Miss Seminole.  This is a great place to see Seminole artists shine as you watch the clothing contests.  Tribal Fair has been held for many decades, and is sure to keep traditions alive in years to come. (ATTK Catalog No. 2016.14.185)

The variety of modern Seminole life is tremendous.  These pictures merely scratch the surface.  If you want to get lost in this subject, stop by the Museum to browse our photos in the library.  If you like to sure the Internet instead, check out our Online Collections here:

https://semtribe.pastperfectonline.com/

It is our mission at the Museum to chronicle the Tribe’s journey and to make sure everyone knows this tremendous story.  Come and help us if that is your mission too!

Boxes and Crates: Housing the Collection

By Robin Croskery Howard, Conservator

Have you ever wondered about the objects in a museum collection when they aren’t on display? How are they cared for and stored? What happens when oversize objects don’t fit in a banker’s box? As the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s Conservator, part of my job in caring for the collection is to provide adequate archival housing for objects that will protect them against certain basic agents of deterioration; in short, I make boxes with special inserts that protect our artifacts from too much light, dust, dirt, changes in the atmosphere, and vibrations. It takes time and creativity to figure out the best way to protect objects and still have the housing fit on the vault shelves. Sometimes the objects are too big and/or too heavy for me to make the right housing. When this happens, our Collections Division relies on outside companies to create custom wooden crates that will protect our objects in the same manner.

The Museum’s collection boasts ten large dugout canoes, which are mostly housed on chocks in the Curatorial Building and can be seen on our behind-the-scenes tours. These canoes were too big and heavy to place into the large vault in the building; they wouldn’t even make it around the corners in the hallway! Therefore, the canoes were moved into the hallway and placed onto heavy duty wooden and steel framed shelves. To prevent dust from accumulating on the interior of the canoes, they are draped in soft perforated Tyvek (textile-like DuPont material that is chemically inert). However, this material only partially protects them from too much light, dust, and dirt accumulation. And, the shelving is located at an access point for the building’s HV/AC system. Over the past year this has proved to be problematic.

In the next couple of years, the HV/AC system in the Curatorial Building will be overhauled to better meet the strict demands to properly store and care for our precious objects. To do that, the technicians will need to work in the same area as the canoes. Since they can’t be easily moved out of the way, the canoes need to receive protective housing. So, our division worked with an outside vendor to create custom wooden crates for three of the large canoes this year.

Exact measurements of the canoes were taken and sent off to the vendor. From there, the custom crates were built with a soft foam interior to protect and surround the object. On the day to crate the objects, four specially trained personnel from the vendor arrived to move the objects from the shelves and into the crates assisted by Museum staff. Last minute adjustments to the interior were made onsite as needed. By the end of the day, three canoes were safely stored in new crates.

These three canoes are now better protected against the agents of deterioration and anyone who has to work in the vicinity. This is a large and expensive project that we are undertaking in small chunks. Hopefully, all of the canoes will have this protective crating by the end of 2021, so that we can continue with the HV/AC project.

Initial Movement
Two of the art handlers lift the canoe from the rack to place inside of the crate

Covering Canoe
The canoe is covered with a Tyvek slip cover inside of the crate

Stays in place
Stays with Ethafoam bumpers are screwed into place to prevent further movement inside of the crate

Lid
The lid for the crate is placed on top and secured with screws

 

Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Re-writes History

By Julie Ruhl, Museum Collections Assistant

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.

2004.1.844 figure 1
This historic document supports the Museum and THPO’s mission to provide the accurate history and ancestry of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, while also detailing the original arguments for draining the Everglades (ATTK Catalog No. 2004.1.844)

 

2019-6-013 figure 2
In this journal article, Andrew Frank makes many valid arguments for the Seminole cause and brings forth a significant amount of evidence to validate his arguments. Dr. Frank has done a good deal of research on the Seminole Tribe of Florida and Florida history (ATTK Catalog No. 2019.6.13). If you’re interested in reading Dr. Frank’s article, follow this link:
https://tinyurl.com/y2p77ea8

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.

To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne Community Center: A Place to Gather

By Justin Giles, Oral History Coordinator

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.

photo 3

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.

IMG_9116

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.

photo 1

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.

Sho-Na-Besh-Sha/Mvto!

(Thank you)!