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HERO forges ahead as it reflects on pandemic successes

BIG CYPRESS — The Seminole Tribe’s Heritage and Environment Resources Office (HERO) is the umbrella for a variety of tribal initiatives – the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, Environmental Resource Management Department (ERMD) and the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO). Each of those departments has a slew of goals and responsibilities. It’s a lot to juggle and manage.

But HERO’s senior director, Paul Backhouse, said tribal leadership, tribal members and his staff have juggled and managed well under the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic.

“We found ways to transform our work processes to do what needs to be done to serve the tribe,” Backhouse said. “I’m proud of our staff across the HERO departments during an incredibly difficult time.”

Backhouse noted the hire of the tribe’s first climate resiliency officer, Jill Horwitz, in December. The tribe has made climate change a priority and Horwitz is tasked with engaging government officials and organizing outreach and education.

Another highlight, Backhouse said, is the speed at which THPO and ERMD issued cultural and environmental permits for new homes at tribal housing developments. New homes have been rising at a steady clip on the Hollywood Reservation and others in the midst of the pandemic.

“The team has been amazing – working in a safe and timely fashion. The turnaround time was less than seven days for a permit – an all-time record,” Backhouse said. “We held that throughout the entire pandemic period making sure we’re out there getting the work done so tribal members could move into these homes. Rain or shine, Covid or no Covid, we’ve worked that through.”

Lake Okeechobee interests

A complex task that HERO manages is the tribe’s relationship with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the decisions it makes about Lake Okeechobee, like water discharges and reservoir construction. The Corps’ decisions have an affect on tribal agriculture and come with environmental and safety concerns. The tribe has water rights to Lake Okeechobee, but its interests go beyond that.

“That’s what the government-to-government consultation is for. They’ve got to listen to us,” Backhouse said.

The Corps has been in the midst of updating its Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSUM), which affects water apportionment. The tribe’s water compact assures a certain amount of water allocation.

“We’ve been working hard on how much the tribe will need in the future and a certain amount of it is through the compact mechanism,” Backhouse said. “But what about 20 years, 50 years or 100 years from now? There’s a massive difference between what the tribe will need in the future and what the tribe’s got now.”

Monitoring the Army Corps of Engineers and its decisions concerning Lake Okeechobee are a big part of HERO’s work. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Apportionment levels have and effect on agriculture, irrigation, cattle operations, citrus crops and even new crops the tribe might embark on like raising palm trees. It affects projects like new housing and parks. Backhouse is optimistic about the tribe’s recent success in influencing the Corps to hold off on a proposed massive Lake Okeechobee reservoir project that would have been located near the Brighton Reservation.

“We’ve been pushing back on it a long time,” Backhouse said. “Right now it’s not authorized. That’s good news.”

The tribe’s concerns about the reservoir, called an ASR well, include potential flooding and general encroachment on tribal lands.

“We have to be so, so vigilant,” Backhouse said. “These projects could really affect tribal communities.”

Repatriation policies

Meanwhile, the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is a law the tribe has worked to change for many years in order to expedite the return of human remains and funerary objects that are held by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The tribe and THPO, through its repatriation committee, saw success in pushing the Smithsonian to revise its repatriation policy last fall.

“We’re making progress with the Smithsonian; I wish it would move faster,” Backhouse said. “The collection is so vast, we have to go through line by line. It’s a very painstaking process. The remains should return back to where they should rest.”

There’s also a recent proposed change to NAGPRA’s language that could broaden the scope of claims to non-federally recognized tribes. It’s another development Backhouse and his staff are keeping tabs on.

“That could be a worrying precedent,” he said.

Museum outlook

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum is tentatively set to reopen August 21 – the same day that it marks its 24th anniversary. Carrie Dilley, the museum’s visitor and development manager, said while the museum has been closed to the public for many months, work has continued behind the scenes.

“Although some things have been in a holding pattern, many areas have been operating as business as usual – like the collections and facilities team,” Dilley said. “There haven’t been visitors, but we’ve maintained an active presence on social media and have fielded educational requests and continue to preserve the collection.”

Museum members continued to receive the AQ magazine (Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Quarterly) and tribal members have had access to facilities by appointment for special tours of the exhibits and access to vaults and archives. Staff has been working onsite and remotely through the pandemic, producing virtual programming. And the museum’s fundraising campaign for its forthcoming redesign has continued. The goal, Dilley said, is for the redesign to be completed in the next couple years. It will the museum’s first.

“The tribe had committed to a large [funding] percentage of the overall project and we’re trying to raise millions more. We will be pursuing corporate sponsors for the remainder of the project,” she said.

More information on HERO programs is at stofhero.com.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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