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Museum oral history project preserving past

TAMPA — Bobby Henry has a story he must tell.

The medicine man first heard the story in the old days, when he was about 8 years old, sitting around the fire “where they put the logs together and everyone just talk and talk,” he said, describing his early years of surviving in primitive camps scattered throughout the Everglades and swamps of interior Florida.

Always, in the chaos of weather and poverty, there was one constant: Always, there was a fire. And always “talkin’ talkin’,” he smiled, his face now just like yesteryear’s Seminoles, eyes burning from a deep, innate obsession with the preservation of history. “Who we are,” Henry calls it.

To Henry, his uncles’ fireside words – tales of history and legend repeated over and over and over again, a veritable soundtrack of his life as manhood approached – were his talking orders, delivered with spits and stares and stern voices he could never forget. He said he lies awake at night, now as he did then, his stomach gnawing with the knowledge he must pass on to the next generation. And so on and on, through time and talk, it would go: “Forever remember,” he calls it. “Who we are.”

Unlike the simple world that sustained the generation before Henry, however, modern times are wreaking historical havoc on the precious tradition. The storyteller’s ritual fire has been replaced by a big-screen TV. The wisdom of elders is being trumped by the smart phone. The language, which forms the words and carries them through the wind, is dying. “I hate that,” he said.

But what could he do?

Recently at the Big Cypress Reservation, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Director Paul Backhouse stopped in to see Museum staffer Eric Griffis, a Gainesville native and a Master of Arts/Southern Studies graduate from the University of Mississippi. Last year, Griffis moved from the Seminole Tribal Historic Preservation Office, where he had been a field archaeologist, to become the Museum’s oral history coordinator, a post that has been both official and unofficial for the past 50 years.

The Museum’s archives include taped interviews from as far back as Seminole leaders Josie Billie and Billy Bowlegs in the 1960s, to Henry, and to the newest Miss Florida Seminole Destiny Nunez. Some interviews were acquired as part of other collections, such as the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, the state’s Florida Memory project and the Smithsonian archives. The Museum staff has included a series of part-time, full-time and volunteer oral historians since opening in 1997, including Patricia Wickman, David Blackard, Patsy West, Elizabeth Lowman and Stephen Bridenstine.

But on the day Backhouse visited Griffis, he had a suggestion: “We should probably get down to Tampa to interview Bobby Henry. He’s got a story about Osceola he wants us to tape. I have no idea what it is, but he brings it up all the time. He wants the story preserved.”

As the leader of the Seminole Stomp Dancers and a well-known “rainmaker,” Henry knows about show business. Cameras focus on his traditional clothing, topped by his ever-present turban, wherever he goes. He’s been on display from the streets and malls of Singapore to the stage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. He’s witnessed the way cameras and notebooks – and their resultant TV programs, movies, newspapers and magazines – document the world.

“Can’t wait for a fire,” Henry recently said, complaining about the wet conditions soaking the Tribe’s Lakeland property, where he plans to live when the 900-acre site is named an official reservation. “Too wet. Wood won’t burn. I gotta tell this story now.”

Back in Big Cypress, Griffis was excited. Henry was a respected Seminole elder who would be more than willing to talk to his video camera.

“We interview Tribal members and others with knowledge of the Tribe’s history, culture and traditions. Our goal is to let members of the Tribe tell their own stories,” Griffis said. “The interviews cover all aspects of Seminole culture – history, legends, crafts, foodways, various industries (cattle, tourism), government, family trees, camp life, whatever they want to talk about.”

Griffis worries that many Tribal members don’t know about the program and the restrictions and protections maintained by the Museum over the collections.

“All of the recordings in the collection are here to be a resource of information for Tribal members,” Griffis said. “However, the person giving the interview can tell us who they want – or don’t want – to be able to listen to the interview.

“The oral history coordinator oversees the collection and makes the recordings available to those who have permission to hear them and protects them from those who do not have permission to hear it. For instance, recently a Tribal member recorded an oral history of his own life and told of things he wants his descendants to know. He stipulated that the interview be archived in the collection and that only his children could have a copy. The Museum makes sure that those conditions are adhered to,” he said.

On occasion, non-Tribal members who spent time working or living with Tribal members are interviewed, such as Edna Siniff, whose family worked with the Tribe in the 1940s; Neal Brown, grandson of William Brown of Brown’s Trading Post; and the late artist Guy LaBree, who specialized in painting oils of Seminole scenes of history and lifestyle.

Griffis said the oral history project will acquiesce to any Tribal member’s stipulation concerning how the interviews are used, including limiting access of certain recordings to a specific Clan and keeping recordings private until the interviewee passes away: “Some recordings may be conducted entirely in Mikasuki or Creek language. Some may not be translated or have written transcriptions made if the interviewee wants to be recorded but does not want the language to be written down or want non-speakers of that language to know it.”

Any Tribal member who wishes to record his or her history, or preserve his or her thoughts about Seminole history, culture, family or anything, in their own words, should contact Eric Griffis at 863-902-1113, ext. 12213.

“We’ll come to you, if that is what you prefer,” Backhouse said.

And that’s what they did for Henry on Aug. 4. He met Griffis at the Tampa Seminole Field Office, in the conference room adorned with sketches of Seminole war leaders. Small talk only lasted a few minutes as Henry squirmed in his seat with the story he said he “must” tell. And he wanted it on camera and tape. When it was over, he was asked what restrictions he wanted to make regarding the story.

“Everyone see it, everyone talk about it,” he sighed. “Keep it going on and on.”