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Native heritage becomes part of statewide art, essay contests

Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School seventh graders in their classroom after appearing virtually before Tribal Council on April 14. In alphabetical order, the students are Joleyne Nunez, Sally Osceola, Hannah Platt, Brody Riley, Kiera Snell, Ila Trueblood, Harmany Urbina and Timothy Urbina. (Courtesy photo)

Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School students played a part in the state of Florida recognizing Native American heritage in statewide student art and essay contests that will be held each November. The contests will coincide with Native American Heritage Month.

This is the first time Native American Month has been included in the statewide contests by the Florida Department of Education, which also holds contests for Hispanic Heritage Month and Black History Month. The addition of the Native American aspect came after a grassroots initiative from a group of PECS students on the Brighton Reservation.

“This is absolutely awesome,” said PECS principal Tracy Downing, who shared the news with the students during morning announcements Aug. 26. “I talked about the process and recognized the students who played a big part in it. Our school board and [Tribal] Council supported the resolution and the Florida Department of Education followed that. As a result of our efforts, we have accomplished our goal. [The FLDOE has] done everything we asked them to do and we will fully participate.”

Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis made the announcement in a news release Aug. 25. The theme for the 2022-2023 school year contests is “Celebrating the achievements of Hispanic, Native American and Black Floridians.”

“I’m excited to recognize Native American Heritage Month. Our state is rich in contributions from the Hispanic, Native American, and Black communities throughout Florida,” DeSantis said in the release. “We are honored to highlight their achievements and impact on Florida’s history. These contests will help students learn about Florida’s leaders and their contributions to our great state.”

“The Seminole Tribe plays an important part in Florida’s history and culture, and we sincerely appreciate being included in this meaningful educational outreach program that reaches students across our state,” Seminole Tribe Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr. said in a statement. He thanked the governor, first lady and education commissioner.

The idea to push for the addition of Native American heritage in the contests began in the spring of 2022 when PECS students in teacher Amy Carr’s sixth grade class read an article about Tribal Historic Preservation Office director Tina Osceola’s fight to bring ancestral remains of Seminoles home from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Inspired by Osceola’s determination, the students embarked on their own quest. They wondered why the program that recognizes Hispanic Heritage Month and Black History Month didn’t include Native American Heritage Month. They decided to make a video at school, create a petition to spread awareness and send emails to the governor, lieutenant governor and the tribe’s Heritage and Environmental Resources Office.

Osceola and Paul Backhouse, HERO senior director, helped the students turn the petition into a Tribal Council resolution titled “Designation of Indigenous Peoples Month and Establishment of a Native American Arts and Writing Contest.”

“We were just like a flashlight and shone the light on the path for the students,” Osceola said. “The resolution just memorialized their ideas.”

One clause in the resolution notes that “Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School desires to increase the recognition of Indigenous People as well as the knowledge and acceptance of Indigenous People statewide.” The students – Joleyne Nunez, Sally Osceola, Hannah Platt, Brody Riley, Kiera Snell, Ilya Trueblood, Harmany Urbina and Timothy Urbina – presented the resolution to the Tribal Council on April 14. It passed unanimously.

“The students had an opportunity to see how their own government works and how they can make a difference in their community and protect their heritage,” Backhouse said. “We are all inspired by that.”

Carr said the process started with a simple conversation in class. It evolved into a petition that roused community involvement, an email campaign, virtual meetings, the presentation to the Council and finally the designation of November as Native American Heritage Month and an annual writing and arts contest.

“I never imagined that the entire state of Florida would be impacted,” Carr wrote in an email to the Tribune. “This group of students found passion in our readings and discussions and used their voices to successfully advocate for the recognition and celebration of their Indigenous heritage. I could not be more proud and inspired by the results. These students are standing out as leaders amongst their peers, showing them that age doesn’t matter. You can accomplish anything you set your mind to. They’ve benefitted from this experience and their efforts will impact future generations.”

In November 2021, PECS teacher Eduarda Lala Anselmo’s son, who was in kindergarten at the time, won the state’s art contest for Hispanic Heritage Month. Anselmo wondered why there was no contest for Native American Heritage Month. Downing credits Anselmo with putting it on the school’s radar, which got the process started.

In a Facebook post Aug. 26, Anselmo wrote, “This is amazing. So glad all that hard work paid off. So proud of our students. They are learning at a very young age that change can happen, that voices can be heard and that we can make things happen if we work together, advocate and appropriately fight for what we believe.”

“We couldn’t be more excited for the kids to see how the process works and to lead that process,” said PECS administrative assistant Michele Thomas. “This was a teachable moment. We are beyond ecstatic that the students were able to be a part of that.”

Osceola believes there is a practical outlook for how this could help the tribe in the long run.

“In terms of the state of Florida, I hope they will take the opportunity to focus on Indigenous issues for the first time and hopefully not the last,” Osceola said. “In some cases we may be able to inspire future tribal archeologists, museum professionals, curators, policy professionals and ultimately, allies and good neighbors. This is all because of the students at the charter school.”

Marcella Billie, assistant director of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, was also involved in helping the students realize their objective. She was impressed with their determination to take the initiative, get the resolution written, go to Council with it and send it to the governor.

“Every step of the way, they did it themselves and that’s truly inspiring,” Billie said. “The school is creating the time and space for kids to focus on these issues. It is a testament to the tribe that all these entities [HERO, THPO, PECS] are working together to allow this space to happen. That is what’s most important for us; to work together for this bigger purpose not just for our tribe, but for all Native Americans.”

The essay contest is open to Florida students in fourth to 12th grade; the art contest is for grades kindergarten to third grade. Details about submissions for the contests, including dates and guidelines, have not been announced. For more information go to fldoe.org/contests/.

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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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