In Defense of the Ancestors …chickee talk by Tina Marie Osceola

Photo of the THPO Team with Director Kirk Johnson, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, February 2023

There is no job that could offer more inspiration than the one I currently hold with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. As a student of Catholic school, I was taught about what a “vocation” is… about a calling. Being appointed by my leaders, the Tribal Council, as the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO), was one of my most proud career moments. Every single day I am defending the rights of my ancestors.

According to the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (NATHPO), “Tribal Historic Preservation Officers are officially designated by a federally-recognized Indian tribe to direct a program approved by the National Park Service and the THPO must have assumed some or all of the functions of State Historic Preservation Officers on Tribal lands. This program was made possible by the provisions of Section 101(d)(2) of the National Historic Preservation Act.” That is a lot of legal speak for what I describe as the defense of our ancestors and our tribe’s cultural and historic resources. I realize that for most, even my own family, it’s hard to grasp what I do everyday. I’ve been introduced as a person who does “archaeology and all that stuff” to “she fights the government.” So for all of you, I want to explain a day in the work life of a Seminole THPO. This is a very abridged version but it’s a start!

First off, I work with a team of amazing professionals. We joke that we function much like The Expendables. We are a diverse group, but we get the job done! The Seminole’s THPO is divided into four sections, Tribal Archaeology, Collections, Compliance, and Archaeometry. The glue that keeps the four sections together is a sticky glob of applicable federal and state laws, tribal ordinances, mixed with a sprinkling of tribal culture and tradition. The magic is in that tribal potion!

The Tribal Archaeology Section (TAS) is led by FSU grad Maureen “Moe” Mahoney. Moe is a no-nonsense, steadfast woman with an ability to lead a team of archaeologists responsible for conducting cultural resource surveys on tribal lands for permit actions. Our Tribe has its own cultural resource ordinance that regulates land use activity on all of our reservations and tribally owned properties. The reports generated by Moe and her team lay the foundation the Tribe uses for tribal consultation and to put it simply, for the Tribe to tell its story and defend its position. This team has dug more than 50,000 holes since its formation in 2005.

The Collections Section is led by a strong-willed and fierce woman, Domonique “Domo” deBeaubien. Domo and her team are responsible for the preservation, cataloging, and protection of the Tribe’s Archaeological collection, which has grown to more than 500,000 objects. All of the material taken out of the ground during TAS’ surveys are washed, analyzed, cataloged, and stored by her team of bio-archaeologists and archaeologists. The collections team is also responsible for research, the Tribal Register of Historic Places, the nomination of sites to the National Register, the maintenance of the Seminole Site File (not for public research), and the protection and repatriation of our ancestors.

The Compliance Section is our outward-facing team led by detail-focused Danielle Simon. Compliance holds the frontline, so to speak, with outside agencies required to consult with Tribes under that glob of federal laws I spoke of earlier. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is required to consult with Tribes on various Everglades Restoration projects. This is unlike public comment because Tribes are defined under the law as political sovereigns. The fourth section is Archaeometry. Led by Nick Butler, this area was pioneered by former THPOs, Willard Steele, Dr. Paul Backhouse and current Assistant Director, Juan Cancel. It all started with, “I need a map.” The level of data collection in the GIS environment amazes me every single day. The data collected in the field by the archaeologists to stories told by tribal members and repatriation inventories are kept in a GIS database in a way that allows the team to make the past come alive! Nick’s never ending thirst for training has led to a deeper use of GIS technology than just a one dimensional map.

I recently visited the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in NYC with Domonique and the Repatriation team. Marcella Billie, a tribal member, is currently training with Domo and Samantha Wade, Senior bio-archaeologist, to repatriate our ancestors and the items looted over the centuries and placed in institutions like AMNH. We stood in a room lined with shelves holding what others call human remains with crania and postcrania stored separately. It wasn’t lost on us that this is where our ancestors are being kept. If we don’t work to bring them home, who will?

Everyday this group of managers and their teams protect and advance tribal sovereignty on a level that amazes and challenges me!

We work for our ancestors. Who can really say that?

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