Sometimes I may seem like a hardass or stitch nazi when it comes to reenacting and living history. That is because it has become such a big part of me and my identity over the past 25 years. So I want to see it done right. I care too much, and it is sometimes reflected by an attitude I get like an army drill sergeant.
Well, I was a sergeant in the U.S. Army 20 years ago.
And I get a short fuse when I see some of the new reenactors making the same mistakes and same bad fashion choices that we suffered through 25 years ago. I guess our job is never finished to set them on the right path.
I am currently reading an excellent book, “Playing Ourselves, Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions,” by Dr. Laura Peers of Oxford University. Although most of her case studies are done in Canada and the Great Lakes, some of the examples she gives are the same things that we have seen down in Florida. As I read the book, I will share some of the things from the book here on the blog.
The first observation in the book is that interpretation at historical sites has changed from what it was in the past. At one time, it was just the fort or fur trading post; a stand-alone structure and interpretation. Only one side of the story was given.
Now we have Native interpreters and impressions blended into sites. The fort or trading post was not an isolated outpost. There were native people here. They traded and supplied the outposts. The fort or trading post could not exist without the local people, and was dependent upon their trade and support. You cannot separate the two. If you look at the history of Fort Toulouse, Alabama, you see that the Natives intermarried so much that it was hard to tell apart the fort immigrants from the Natives. Josiah Francis and William Weatherford were from soldier/Creek families. Then the English and Scottish who intermarried with the Creeks sent their children off to school in places like London and Baltimore. So the whole story cannot be told without the interaction of the local Native people.
That is why it was such a terrible thing when we lost our village at Fort Foster back in 1997. We lost a big half of the story and our interpretive tool. Another point in the book is that administration and interpreters are not always on the same track. I need to say that I have no bad feelings for the current park staff and know that they want a good interpretation of the site. After all, the staff has changed over many times the past 14 years.
Also in the introduction for “Playing Ourselves,” it states a unique part that Native Historians have in interpretation. Native interpreters have the unique ability to use themselves as the bridge to connect the past with the present. Not only do they portray their great-grandparents, but also they can be the living testament that they have survived as a people, culture, and community. That is something that is hard to convey to Seminole reenactors who are not members of the Seminole Tribe. And it would be impossible to have a Seminole tribal member as a reenactor to separate their past culture from their present surviving self. It is part of their identity of who they are. So, a Seminole reenactor can have an interesting duality.
Native interpreters are not looking at themselves as reenactments at just one point in time. They see their people in 1835. Then they have moved on. Survived and changed. Some of the culture has changed, but there is a lot that has adapted. They don't wear the old clothes and live in chickees anymore, but they hold great respect for their ancestors who did. And if they had to go back to those old ways, it probably would not bother them in the least.
Can those of us Seminole reenactors who are not tribal members develop a similar identity? Maybe; maybe not. I know some who have come close to being the man of both the past and the survivor of today. I have several things in my background that have bridged a gap where Okahumpkee becomes part of my identity. My own journey to bridge the gap between Okahumpkee and Chris had many influences from my earliest age. I remember when I was six years old, and wanting my parents to buy that patchwork jacket that was my size at the Miccosukee restaurant on the Tamiami Trail. Mom worked with museums and was an anthropologist, so I was around Native Florida people and mounds since an early age.
But probably a big factor for me was the outdoor connection. When I was growing up, my parents could not keep me inside. With the scouts, I was often in the natural places in Florida. So I have the land / geographic connection with Florida. The Seminole and Miccosukee connection to the land is part of who they are. Wildcat / Coacoochee said that he was made of the sands of Florida, and that it was here that his umbilical cord was cut. That is why removal was so traumatic, and why the Seminoles did not want to leave. The natural outdoors in Florida are a special kind of teaching and medicine, and are geographically specific.
With a strong connection to the land, and thus to the people of the land, we bridge the gap between cultures. Developing my identity that may be parallel to the Seminoles, encourages me to be concerned about doing correct historical interpretation.