2020 has brought significant challenges to Indian Country that have required considerable attention from Tribal members. While COVID-19 has grabbed the spotlight across the nation, at home another matter continues in importance: the Seminole Tribe’s role in ongoing Everglades restoration efforts. To that end, the Tribe is partnering with the Army Corps of Engineers to lend Indigenous guidance in South Florida conservation and preservation.
The Seminole Tribe’s newly formed Seminole Heritage Services (SHS) would like to hear from Tribal members to discuss the importance that the Everglades and natural resources, such as water and land, have on their lives or had on the lives of their ancestors.
“What’s important to you about Everglades restoration? What do you want others to know about what these lands mean and how do you think these lands, waters, natural resources should be managed?” said Jason Herbert, who was recently hired as an ethnographer for SHS.
Herbert, 42, comes to the Tribe with master’s and bachelor’s degrees in history from Wichita State University in Kansas. He is quite familiar with Native American history in Florida, proof of which is found in his current pursuit of a doctoral degree in Indigenous and Environmental History from the University of Minnesota. His dissertation is about the history of cattle in Indigenous Florida from the 16th to 19th centuries.
Herbert and his teammates from SHS have embarked on compiling an ethnography, which is an extensive and detailed body of research about a culture or aspect of a culture. The focus is on the Tribe’s cultural history and how the past, current and future utilizations of natural resources are important to Tribal members and the Tribe. Herbert will do the writing, and plenty of it – the ethnography will likely be hundreds of pages – but the foundation of the project will come from interviews with Seminoles.
“This ethnography is being written from the Tribe’s perspective. It is a cultural history of the Tribe, by the Tribe, and that’s what’s really important,” he said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commissioned the ethnography as part of its Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).
“The Army Corps of Engineers is in the midst of a massive Everglades restoration project,” Herbert said. “But you can’t talk about the Everglades without talking to Seminoles. In fact, federal law requires consultation with the Tribe. The Corps wants to understand how Seminoles have engaged with the lands, waters, and natural resources in South Florida. We’re hoping that this ethnography will help guide this process.”
Seminole voice in the plan
The Corps is the lead federal agency for CERP, but Herbert emphasized that the voices in the research work will be Seminole.
“The Seminole Tribe of Florida has a really talented team of folks working with Seminole Heritage Services who care deeply about not only the Seminole past, but the Seminole present and future. We’re all working to ensure that this is a Seminole project,” he said.
CERP is a multi-faceted, multi-billion-dollar project that was first authorized by Congress 20 years ago. It’s described by federal agencies as the largest hydrologic restoration project in U.S. history with a stated goal to preserve, protect and restore South Florida’s ecosystem while providing for other water-related needs of the region. It’s an ecosystem that has been under assault from a variety of issues, such as algae blooms, fish kills, invasive species, nutrient pollution, and commercial and residential sprawl, to name a few.
Some components of CERP either directly or indirectly impact Seminole communities. For example, the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project is next door to the Brighton Reservation. A massive reservoir project, also known as the Everglades Agricultural Area, south of Lake Okeechobee, is adjacent to the Big Cypress Reservation. In addition, the Western Everglades Restoration Project, as stated by the South Florida Water Management District, “is to re-establish sheet flow from the West Feeder Canal across the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation and into Big Cypress National Preserve, maintain flood protection on Seminole Tribal lands and ensure that inflows to the north and west feeder canals meet applicable water quality standards.” Further south, in a region of the Everglades where the Seminole Trail community lives and is home of the Miccosukee Tribe, new bridges have been constructed on the Tamiami Trail with a goal of improving water flow that has been hampered for decades by the construction of the roadway.
Dr. Paul Backhouse, senior director of the Tribe’s Heritage and Environmental Resource Office, said input from the Seminole Tribal Community in the ethnography project is crucial.
“The project is going to be extremely important in its opportunity to get the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to better understand who the Seminole Tribe is and why Seminole communities absolutely need to be considered during ‘restoration’ project planning,” he said.
Lois Billie and Quenton Cypress are points of contact for Tribal members who want to share their thoughts and stories with THPO. The parameters are vast. From canoes to canals, from cooking to cattle ranching, from hunting to history, to all points between, how do natural resources impact Tribal lives?
“Maybe you’re a cattle rancher. How does water management affect how you ranch your cattle? Do you fish? Do you hunt? How do these things affect you?” Herbert said as examples of those who might want to contribute.
The ethnography will be public record, and therefore, the eyes that see it could be engineers, environmentalists, historians, politicians and anyone else from the general public. However, any sensitive information that the Tribal community provides will be kept safe and private as the Tribal members best see fit. The sensitivity of many of the discussions will be maintained and respected, as such some portions of the discussions might be redacted as necessary. Yet everyone involved with SHS wants to share the Seminole story the way the community wants it to be told, to provide a better engagement with the Corps and the Tribe.
“This is an opportunity with this ethnography to really interject the Tribe’s voice into the environmental restoration and management practices going forward,” Herbert said. “It’s also an opportunity to put into the historical record how the Tribe sees this interaction going right now so that when Tribal members want to look back 20 years from now, 100 years from now, 200 years from now, they can look back and we have this record of engagement. This is really an opportunity in some ways to put a written legacy to Tribal engagement with the land, waters, natural resources in South Florida.”
The SHS team would like to hear from as many Tribal members as possible, regardless of where they live.
“I think it’s pretty well established that the Everglades are important to Seminoles, no matter if you live in Tampa or if you live in Hollywood or if you live in Brighton or Big Cypress or somewhere else,” Herbert said.
The areas of the restoration plan encompass a big chunk of Florida, and hence, substantial pieces of Seminole life and history.
“Really what we’re talking about is largely these lands that go from the Orlando area south,” Herbert said, “and because Seminoles and their ancestors have always lived in these regions, it’s an opportunity to say these lands are important and here’s why, here’s how the Seminole Tribe of Florida has always engaged with them.”
Any Tribal member who would like to contribute to the Tribe’s ethnography can contact Lois Billie at (863) 697-2835 or Quenton Cypress at (863) 677-1598.