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New book clears roadblocks for Tribes ‘Finding a Seat at the Table’

BIG CYPRESS — The Council’s approval to publish the Tribal Historic Preservation Office’s (THPO) “Finding a Seat at the Table” book adds another chapter to Seminole history.

The how-to book, to be printed in early 2015 by University Press of Florida, will be the first authored and sanctioned by a Native American THPO specifically to provide Indian Country with proven procedures for locating, documenting and preserving Native history.

“It’s great for us to be leaders, but if we are not serving then we are doing nothing,” said Paul Backhouse, director of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer.

Backhouse, who led the project, said the Tribe’s THPO earned credibility to pen the book by establishing itself as an information clearinghouse for other THPOs and by hosting workshops at national historic preservation conferences.

“Finding a Seat at the Table” is a metaphor for ensuring Tribes are given equal treatment and respect when dealing with local, state and federal agencies – and that they are armed with powerful documentation, he said.

In 2008 and 2009, Backhouse and THPO’s chief data analyst Juan Cancel hosted seminars in San Diego, California to show how the department uses geographic information system (GIS) equipment as a tool for capturing, mapping, storing, analyzing, presenting and managing data gleaned from above the ground.

Last year, the department hosted a seminar in ground-penetrating radar (GPR) at a conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico to illustrate how the Tribe uses technology to gather large volumes of data without breaking ground in culturally sensitive areas.

Cancel said his most recent one-on-one consultation was with the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut who he taught how to put the equipment to practical use in the field.

“They came down and we gave them a tour … then we went to them,” Cancel said. “The biggest part of what we do is sharing our own story.”

Currently, 155 of the 566 federally recognized Tribes in the United States have THPO departments.

The federal government provides some funding which many Tribes use to purchase equipment and technology. In 2013, the government provided 152 Tribes with $7.5 million – Seminole Tribe’s THPO received $53,896 of the share.

Cancel said all THPOs are gifted with knowledge and passion for archaeology and anthropology. But many departments are short-staffed and not all know how to operate technologic tools in field applications or convert the data into documentation for preservation battles.

“For example, the Mohegan had a recording device but did not have a workflow system to use it. We have that process so we went there and trained them. We said, ‘This is how we use it; this is how it can work for you,’” Cancel said.

THPOs were created from a 1989 act of Congress that directed the National Park Service (NPS) to study and report on Tribal preservation funding needs in respect to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. In 1990, a dozen Tribes assumed responsibility for preserving their own historic properties, traditions, native plants, language and other cultural resources through THPO departments.

The Seminole Tribe’s THPO, created in 2006, is organized into five sections: archaeometry, architectural history, collections, compliance review and Tribal archaeology.

According to the department’s 2013 annual report, the compliance section alone – which protects Seminole interests on and off reservations – handled 3,575 project notifications and consultation requests from nine states.

Backhouse said the book will put power in the hands of other Tribes by putting information at their fingertips.

It will also give local, state and federal agencies a view of how one Tribal government and THPO department gets the job done.

“It really will be a how-to book,” Backhouse said.

Each technical chapter is followed by a chapter written or reported orally by elders and other Tribal leaders in history, culture and medicine, including Willie Johns, of Brighton. Johns, who formerly led the Education and Culture Departments, is now a chief justice of Tribal Court. His chapter will confirm a vital relationship between history and archaeology.

“When we talk to the medicine man and he tells us what our uncles and fathers knew about how they survived wars, the economy of the old days and the land-grubbing Americans who pushed our wars, we learn,” Johns said. “And just when you think you know all you can stand, someone makes a discovery.”

Johns credits archaeology for the recent discovery of early Seminole log cabins in Bowlegs Town along the Suwannee River in Dixie County.

Later, in May, a historical marker was unveiled in Brooksville, Hernando County, to commemorate the site of the first Creek settlement in Florida.

And in July, proof that a military trail worthy of the National Register of Historic Places exists on land near Big Cypress was produced as evidence in a courtroom battle that Tribal leaders hope will prevent the construction of a massive power plant.

“If there is a line for what we dig up, we know it when we see it. Still we should investigate it, check it out, see what it is, keep it, report it – and more Native people should be involved,” Johns said.

And not all historical discoveries should be revealed, he said.

Cancel said GIS provides ground mapping, spacial formations and surface analysis. GPR provides pictures, like sonograms, of what is underground, such as pipelines.

“Tribes are usually looking for things of such sensitive nature that they are not even spoken about … basically we want to be non-invasive, non-digging. We don’t want to put a shovel in the ground,” Cancel said.

Johns said the book allows the Tribe to take the lead in historical preservation just as it has in education, housing, health care, gaming and other Indian County concerns. He hopes Tribal youth will read it, tell friends and create a movement toward more discovery and preservation.

“Right now, archaeology and Native history go hand in hand. When is enough, enough? When we say so,” Johns said. “We wrote the book on it.”