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Native Interpretations

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A while ago, I mentioned a book that I am slowly reading whenever I have the time. "Playing Ourselves, Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions" by Laura Peers. Although the case studies given in the text are up in Canada and the mid-west US, it is very applicable to Florida. In fact, I feel that Florida is behind in interpreting historic sites that are done so well elsewhere.

I want those of us who portray Seminoles or natives of the previous centuries to understand what Native perspectives are, and to incorporate that into their interpretations. From attempting to do this for the past 25 years, I feel that it has opened up a whole different world for me.

I want to cover the issue of adding Native interpretations to sites that once exclusively displayed only the non-native or settler perspective.

Since the 1970s, there was a need to add the formerly missing Native interpretation to historical sites. Afterall, the Native people were always here, and part of the story. At one time they were the dominant population, and the history of that place would not have happened if it was not for the natives. The newcomers / settlers would not have survived in the beginning if not for the help from the local people.

So at first sites started doing something as simple as an interpretive panel or display about the native people. That really wasn't enough, and it really didn't give the story of the people from their perspective. So sites started adding dwellings and villages, and people to interpret the native culture and way of life. The height of this was in the 1990s.

Unfortunately due to budget cutbacks, a lot of sites have had to eliminate their interpreters and scale down their displays during the past 6 or 7 years. Hopefully this is only temporary for this negative trend, and it will once again swing back in the other direction.

Native people want to tell their story. Adding a native interpretation to a site empowers them and reaffirms their existence. Native people see their identity connected to places. This is where their people lived. That is why the removal was so devastating to them, because it ripped out their identity that was grounded to the place where they were and the things that were familiar to them. They didn't necessarily have a Jerusalem, but their home was a similar concept. With many of the Creeks, they are still tied to a specific talwa. Even among the Seminoles, a couple generations ago they could even tell you what talwa their clan/family came from.

The difference with Native interpretation can be striking. For example, a site around the Great Lakes commemorates the settlers moving in. For the descendants, they view this as ingenuity, achievement, and freedom. To the native people, their interpretation is that these annoying people moved in for a short while, and then left. (Or settled down and became part of the local territory.)

Native people say that they are "playing themselves." When they go home, they don't stop being a Native person that they interpreted at the site. It is just the century and furniture might change.

For myself, I feel this way even though I am not a member of the Seminole Tribe. The reason why, is that I am living in the same geographic area, and in the same environment. I have been active in the outdoors of Florida most of my life, and been a park ranger here for several years. There have even been some cultural practices that I have adopted. I don't want a plastic membership card that says I am a member of any particular tribe, but I feel that I am part of the family. It probably helps that my Mom was a cultural / social anthropologist and I am a historian, so I have sought out a lot of literature about the people. Mom was taking me to visit the reservations and museums even before I was birthed.

So I want people to interpret with a sense of whom they are portraying, and develop their own identity.

I am running out of time, so let me continue this on my future blog. I want to show specific sites in Florida and discuss the native interpretation of those sites.
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