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THPO mapping project centers on community participation

A typical map is a one dimensional portrayal of a place comprised of lines, names and numbers. A participatory map is a lot more personal and driven by the culture and experiences of those who live there.

Participatory mapping, also known as community mapping, is based on the knowledge of local residents. The end result is a map which encompasses a community’s impressions of the place in which they live.

The Seminole Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) has embarked on a tribalwide mapping project that will depict the importance of places to tribal members.

“It is a way to gather locational information that is important to the tribe,” said Lacee Cofer, THPO chief data analyst. “It’s an organic process led by the participant. We don’t tell them what’s important; we want to know what they think is important.”

Quenton Cypress examines maps of some areas THPO would like participants to describe for the community mapping project. (Courtesy photo)

Cofer hopes participants will include places like restaurants, buildings, a favorite river to fish or place to hunt.

To create the maps, participants receive a box with instructions on how to make their own maps in a diorama form. The boxes include supplies such as pins to mark the map’s locations, sticky notes, stickers and markers. The boxes may include multiple maps.

The maps can be a multigenerational project and children are encouraged to participate. Playdough and construction paper are included in the boxes so the entire family can create the map together.

“Creativity is encouraged,” Cofer said. “We hope kids, parents and grandparents can do it together as a hands-on activity while everyone is cooped up inside the house.”

Lacee Cofer provided this example of a mapping project diorama of her own neighborhood. Included are landmarks such as bodies of water and roads along with items to be found in those areas. (Courtesy photo)

THPO aims to map the southern half of Florida. Participants aren’t limited as to what area they want to map. Tribal members and students at the Ahfachkee School and Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School were invited to participate.

“It’s a pretty big area, so we supplied small maps for small areas,” Cofer explained. “We hope people give us information for areas that are important to them.”

Ahfachkee middle and high school students who wanted to participate received their boxes in the fall. About a dozen or so volunteered to complete maps with their families. Boxes were delivered directly to those families.

“The students were intrigued about being part of their own history,” said Joseph Burley, high school social studies teacher. “We told them they are the journalists on this and you are reaching out to your families, who are the historians. It was an interesting dialogue. Their tendency was to leave it to their parents, uncles and grandparents to do that. They didn’t realize they would be those historians someday. It was eye opening for them.”

Burley, who offered extra credit for photos of students’ projects, said they were enthusiastic and looked forward to getting their families involved. Students were directed to turn their maps in directly to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.

Members of the THPO participatory mapping project team, from left, Lois Billie, Quenton Cypress and Nic Butler, sit around the fire outside of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum with boxes to be given to project participants. (Courtesy photo)

“The timing was interesting; we do current events and discuss Covid,” Burley said. “The Navajo lost so many elders and so much of their history during the pandemic. We talked about the importance of oral history and being able to document it through the mapping project for them and their children in the future.”

Since the school is in session only virtually, the impact of face-to-face conversations with elders has been absent.

“Elders used to come in and speak to the students,” Burley said. “When students see tribal members place value on something, it has a huge impact. If we weren’t virtual, it might have helped to have a guest speaker talk about it.”

About 50 students in grades seven and eight at PECS were to receive their boxes at the end of January and are scheduled to return them in February.

THPO’s objective for the project is to gain as much information as possible. The data will be used as a reference document for future consultation with the tribe. Cofer said the project will be used to ease the off-reservation consulting process with agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

This is the first time THPO has done a project of this nature. Feedback from the community has been positive. Boxes have been brought to community meetings and about two dozen tribal members are working on theirs.

“I’ve had a few people tell me it’s a good idea and they like the concept of it,” said Quenton Cypress, Heritage and Environment Resources Office (HERO) community engagement manager.

“A friend of mine took a box and said it would be good for him to do with his kids. This is a great opportunity to sit with your grandparents and listen to stories to see where things took place,” added Lois Billie, Executive Operations Office executive assistant. “These are things you want to know for future generations.”

Cypress believes the cultural aspect of the project is good for families.

“It will bring families closer by doing this with us,” he said. “Even better, it can bring kids and parents together as they learn the history of where things were and how camp life was in the day.”

The mapping project is ongoing. The goal is to be able to compile the information by spring or summer and complete the study by the end of the year.

Those who would like to participate may contact Cofer at or call (863) 983-6549, ext. 12263.

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