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Tina Osceola takes helm at THPO

The Major Billy L. Cypress Building houses the THPO department. (File photo)

Tina Osceola is known for her passion on issues that are important to the Seminole Tribe – her work to have the remains and funerary objects of tribal ancestors returned – and the years she spent as one of Tribal Court’s original judges.

So it may not come as a surprise that last August she became director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO), succeeding Anne Mullins who retired.

Like many during the first year of the pandemic, Osceola, 54, said she spent a lot of time thinking about what she wanted to do in the next phase of her life.

“The pandemic motivated me to reassess my purpose,” she said. “I did a lot of thinking about the type of work I do, and I’ve always wanted to make a difference.”

Osceola, a lifelong resident of the Naples community, said she contacted Paul Backhouse, senior director of the Heritage and Environment Resources Office (HERO), to see if any positions were opening up and if there was one he would like her to fill. Osceola has worked with Backhouse for years. She told him: “I’m willing to do anything to feed my soul.” The THPO opening fit the bill.

Tina Osceola (File photo)

“THPO is really the champion of tribal sovereignty,” Osceola said. “And that is due, in part, to the incredible amount of interface between our office and federal and state agencies.”

THPO, the Environmental Resource Management Department (ERMD), and the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum all fall under the HERO umbrella at the tribe.

“It is inspiring to work alongside people like Tina, who is incredibly capable and a champion for her people,” Backhouse said. “I am excited to support the next steps in the development of the THPO program.”

“That’s our foot in the door when it comes to these large projects that occur with the Army Corps, Everglades restoration and national parks that are in ancestral boundaries,” Osceola said. “It’s important for tribes to fully exercise their rights and responsibilities. It really is our mission.”

Osceola said that while much of the work THPO tackles can be tedious, it also has a major impact. She and a staff of 23 work on repatriation issues – through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) – and it has influence on projects that receive federal funding, through the National Historic Preservation Act.

THPO is also responsible for archaeological work on the tribe’s reservations, which include permitting, cultural resource surveys and ownership and usage rights of lands.

‘No More Stolen Ancestors’

Osceola said the tribe’s repatriation committee, which carries the motto “No More Stolen Ancestors,” has been making
strategic moves to keep pressure on institutions like the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), which has a collection of about 1,500 Seminole ancestors and tens of thousands of archaeological objects.

The committee has appealed to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) for support and has engaged with national media that are interested in telling the tribe’s story.

“That’s been incredibly successful to getting the word out and the Smithsonian has been responding to that attention,” Osceola said.

In late 2020, the committee was successful in getting the NMNH to revise its policy to include provisions to repatriate human remains and other items that were previously identified as “culturally unidentifiable.” It was a significant breakthrough, but Osceola said she didn’t immediately celebrate.

“I wanted to wait and see how it was to be carried out practically,” she said. “We’ve had meetings with them since the policy changed – and I go into each meeting with an open mind – but they’re not interested in repatriating ancestors. They’re more dedicated to their own research and patrimony over ancestors – not in making the process easier for the tribes.”

The tribe has also joined seven others – called the Star Alliance – to get the University of Alabama’s Moundville collection of almost 5,900 remains and objects repatriated.

“[The University of] Alabama continues to put road blocks up because they felt the ancestors and funerary objects were theirs and they did not want to repatriate,” Osceola said.

There has been progress, too — particularly in working with NAGPRA officials and other federal and state agencies.

“But the fact of the matter is the ancestors were disturbed, split and divided through many institutions,” Osceola said. “We’re left with the question now of reburial and finding all the missing ancestors and funerary objects. It’s not an easy process and it becomes daunting, especially with institutions with older collections. We’re patient. As long as they are entering the process in good faith, we will work with them.”

Osceola said THPO would soon be reaching out to the tribal community to develop a more formalized repatriation committee to get more tribal members involved. More information is at stofthpo.com.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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