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A nurse’s notes: Claudia Wilson’s collection and healthcare within the Seminole Tribe

Claudia Wilson and two children outside of the Big Cypress Clinic. (Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)

By Laura Dello Russo, Registrar

BIG CYPRESS — The Seminole Tribe has overseen the creation and management of its modern health care services for the past 50 years. However, prior to 1971, it was the Florida Division of Health who provided these services to the Seminole community. A small group of doctors, nurses and medical assistants from the state were selected to travel between reservations and treat the ailments and regular health needs of tribal members. One of these nurses was Claudia Wilson of Clewiston, who worked with the Seminole community for 11 years and became an influential figure in the tribe’s health care from the late 1950s to the early 1970s.

Sadly, Claudia passed away in 2017 at the age of 99. Upon her death, her family donated her extensive collection of
photographs, letters, newspaper clippings and other documents to the Clewiston Museum for preservation. The collection then made its way to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in 2018, and staff members have been working diligently since then to catalog the nearly 900 documents and objects that Claudia had gathered and preserved so meticulously. The cataloging of Claudia’s collection was finally completed this past summer, and the documents within it provide a rare and fascinating look at health care within the tribe during the mid-20th century.

Those decades, specifically the 1960s and 1970s, saw crucial developments in health care; the polio vaccine was developed and made available for commercial use, electrocardiograms (EKGs) became more widespread, and birth control pills were approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Being a nurse with the Florida Division of Health, Claudia was instrumental in bringing these services to the Seminole community she served.

Claudia Wilson administers a booster shot to Mary Tigertail at the Big Cypress Clinic in July 1964. (Clewiston News)

Claudia ran the medical clinics on Big Cypress and Brighton where she held clinic days twice per week. On those days, she provided regular health checkups, gave vaccines and booster shots, administered family planning and prenatal services, performed tuberculin testing, and checked children’s vision and hearing for school health programs. She also took part in fitness and weight loss clubs that were formed on the reservations. Additionally, she assisted with the implementation of the cardiac screening program in Hendry and Glades counties, which was made available to tribal members living in those areas. As a regular fixture around the reservations, Claudia became both a nurse and a friend.

Finally, in 1971, the United South and Eastern Tribes Inc. requested that management of the Seminole’s health care
services be transferred over to the tribe, and the Florida Division of Health’s contract was not renewed. It was at this time that Claudia had to decide whether to continue her career with the state or take a new position with the U.S. Public Health Service. She chose to stay with the state.

Claudia’s work with the Seminole Tribe was influential to the field of health care during those formative decades. Her medical notes and records were included in reports by the Indian Health Program of the U.S. Public Health Service, as well as medical reports conducted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Additionally, in October 1978, she received the Florida Public Health Association Meritorious Service Award in recognition in part for her work with the Seminoles.

Her collection of memories, including photographs from clinic days, pharmacy prescriptions, and letters from tribal
members regarding their medical needs, now provide us with a detailed look at the development of health care services within the tribe. The collection also offers a glimpse into life in the Seminole community shortly after it gained its federal status in 1957.

The 897 items within this collection, stored for decades in boxes and Claudia’s family photo albums, are now carefully
preserved in the archives at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, where they can continue to serve the Seminole community.

These historic photographs and documents, along with thousands of other items, are available for the community to
access anytime. If you’d like to see the collection, you can make an appointment by emailing museum@semtribe.com, or you can check out the museum’s collection online.

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