by Tina Osceola
Most people who move to Florida from anywhere north of the state line miss one thing… the changing seasons. They miss the leaves changing color and summer temps dropping in the Fall. For native people, changing seasons historically resulted in having to move in an effort to follow or find food and water sources.
When speaking to the Seminoles about having to prepare for the winter, my question was met with a few grins, smirks and questions like, “Seriously? Winter? What’s winter?”
It became apparent that changing seasons had a different definition and it would take changing perspectives to best understand.
In an effort to find the answer, I went straight to the source, the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO). Headquartered on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, the THPO shares a campus in a cypress hammock with the Tribe’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. The THPO is charged with preserving, documenting, and promoting the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s cultural heritage, both on and off the modern reservation boundaries.
Since 2008, the THPO has completed approximately 2,400 cultural surveys, which covers roughly 15,000 acres. The technology employed by the Seminole’s THPO is expanding the scope of the scientific definition of Florida’s environment.
It is through this scientific lens that we can take a peek into the historical and archaeological record of Florida’s native people.
I sought out Dr. Paul Backhouse, Ph. D., RPA, and Senior Director of the Heritage and Environment Resources Office and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
When I first approached Dr. Backhouse, he immediately responded (in a British accent),
“I truly believe there was in fact strong seasonality – it’s just hard to spot archaeologically and harder to detect to non-native immigrant populations who are used to the extreme seasonal swings in the north.
Some of the old interviews and books point to a very deep and nuanced understanding in the subtle shifts of the seasons from wet and hot in the summer to dry and cool in the winter. ”
So there it is, Florida’s native people had two seasons; wet and dry, a dynamic that all Floridians can recognize. This conversation had me wanting more information, so I sent some questions to tribal archaeologist, Samantha Wade.
When I asked what the archaeological record shows in terms of environmental changes, Wade cited work they completed on the Brighton Seminole Indian Reservation on Lake Okeechobee.
The THPO obtained radiocarbon dates from 375 B.C. to A.D. 1600 including the Roman Warm Period (350 B.C. – A.D. 500), the Medieval Climatic Anomaly (A.D. 950 – A.D. 1400), and the Little Ice Age (A.D. 1430 – A.D. 1820).
According to Wade, “The climate and environmental changes had an effect on what animals were being exploited by the Florida Seminoles through time. There is also evidence that increased sea levels led to an increase in water inland, which led to more people settling inland. Decreased sea levels led to droughts which influenced people to move toward the coast.”
So how did the archaeological record affect Florida’s Seminoles?
According to Wade, “The environmental changes had an impact on Seminole lifeways. Food and medicine retrieval was seasonally due to plant availability. Since Seminoles could not stockpile herbs because they needed to be fresh, it was important to note in what areas and seasons to look for specific plants.
Seminoles were often raised with the knowledge of how to tell what different plants looked like in various seasons, as well as how to find the plants based on topography and other factors. Certain blooms were important for the Seminoles to identify important events, such as the Green Corn Dance.”
I urge everyone to visit the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation. Many do not know the science that is being conducted by the Tribe itself.
It can be said that the Tribe has more resources, talent and skill dedicated to historic preservation of Florida than state and federal resources. You will notice that not only do we share our stories, legends and oral histories, but they are supported by archaeological records.