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Oral histories provide important part of museum archives

BIG CYPRESS — Storytelling has been a common way to pass along traditions and memories since ancient times.

Also known as oral history, the practice predates the written word and is the oldest method of recording history. But it is also a very modern way of documenting history. In the 1940s tape recorders became tools of the trade and now state-of-the-art digital technology is used to record the stories.

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Big Cypress has a vibrant oral history program and aims to document as many stories from Tribal members as possible.

Alex Johns is recorded by Justin Giles, left, during an oral history session at the Cattle and Range building in Brighton on Aug. 14. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

“Once you start to record things, you can save them for posterity,” said Justin Giles, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki oral history coordinator. “We want to show what you are doing right now so your grandchildren and great-grandchildren can see it, too.”

Giles recently recorded an oral history of Alex Johns, the first Native American to be elected as president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association. Johns talked about his life growing up in Brighton, working with his family’s herd and what it means to be Natural Resource Director in which he oversees the Seminole Tribe’s cattle program. Along the way, he talked about what cattle means to the Tribe and how it evolved into the sophisticated business it is today.

“Crossbreeding was magic to our people,” Johns said as Giles recorded it on video. “Offspring are always superior to the parents.”

Johns also talked about cattle’s importance to the land.

“Land is made to be grazed by wildlife and becomes infertile if you remove livestock,” Johns said. “Cattle enhance the land.”

Johns’ focus in the oral history was about what he knows best: cattle. Giles wants other Tribal members to tell their own stories, whether it’s about attending the recent opening of the SemFuel gas station or anything else.

“One conversation can lead to other things,” Giles said. “It can be what it’s like to go to school on a reservation, make a batch of sofkee, go to the beach, anything at all. It’s all indicative of the community at this time.”

Giles goal is to record a few each month. Tribal members can request him to come out to make a recording, or he may reach out to people to recruit them for an oral history session. The point is to get as many people interested in recording their stories as possible.

Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum oral history coordinator Justin Giles edits oral histories in his office. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

The oral histories are stored in a vault. Anyone may request to view or listen to most of them, but some are meant only for Tribal members or even only specific clans. Researchers, students, professors and others often come to the museum to access the videos.

Like other Tribal-run museums around the country, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki is more than just a place for artifacts; it is a place to see, touch, smell and hear. Giles believes Native American museums can be cultural centers, gathering places and the voice of the community.

“It’s a way of flexing the sovereignty muscle,” Giles said. “It always has to be reaffirmed so people understand who the Seminoles are. The more you can tell your own story, the better they will understand it.”

The museum is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums and is a Smithsonian Affiliate.

“We have a world-class institution here in the middle of Big Cypress,” Giles said. “It does a great service telling the Seminole story.”

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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.

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