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Natives Interpreting Themselves

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Here are more notes and observations from "Playing Ourselves, Interpreting Native Histories at Historical Reconstructions" by Laura Peers. This is a wonderful book. Although a bit technical and written on a college level of understanding, I would encourage everyone who interprets and portrays historical Seminoles or other native people to get a copy, read and absorb what it says. I think it is one of the best books I have seen for native interpretation. Although the examples used are from the northern US and Canada, I think that the situations and examples are valid for down here.

There is a difference between reenactors who are not from a native background, and tribal members who decide that they want to be historical interpreters.

Native or tribal people in modern society no longer grow up in a chickee, take a bath in the canal. or pole a dugout canoe. Success for the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes the past few decades has changed their way of living. They live in comfortable houses, go to the local school, wear jeans and t-shirts, and go to rap concerts. I think that the Seminoles and Miccosukee in south Florida are closer to their traditional and non-western values than other tribes because their economic success and federal recognition is only within the past 50 years. The older people in the tribe did grow up in a chickee and take a bath in the canal.

For tribal people over 40, the life that the reenactors portray at events are not too different from what they knew when they were young. For those under 40 who are willing to try the historical interpretation, they might feel that the past lifestyle brings them closer to their roots and culture. In essence, they are not reenacting; they are coming home. For Native interpreters, they do not change out of the native when they get back to modern society. They are the same people but in different clothes and shelters. And as interpreters, they are not just telling the Seminole story, but their own story.

Native people have a different perspective of time and events. The native concept of time is not linear, but circular or spiral, where events repeat themselves, and we are just doing what we have always done. And for them, telling history is not so much an event, but telling a story with a message. Not so much a story from 1835 with Coacoochee, but what happened and what we learned from it.

I think that because time is a different concept, is why many native interpreters at Dade Battle reenactment or at the Big Cypress shootout wear clothing and weapons that are not always period correct. Yes, their ancestors did wear boler hats, but those were not in the United States until about 1880, even though some Seminole reenactors are riding through battle wearing them. I can only hope they seek to improve their outfit to reflect an accurate 1830s/40s image.

[Below: The best role models who I know for natives doing an accurate Seminole War interpretation with correct outfits are Brian (center) and Pedro (right) Zepeda. That have been working hard, and today are important instructors among the Seminole Tribe. This picture is from 10 years ago at the Okeechobee battle reenactment.]

But a big problem that Native interpreters have, is facing stereotypes that the visitors bring with them to events. It is frustrating when people come up to them with a greeting, “How!,” or calling the women squaws. This is an unfortunate thing that they will always face. But it can become their challenge to face. The visitors just do not know how to engage them in conversation when all they know of Native people are from 1950s Hollywood movies. Some native interpreters will get frustrated by this, and become disillusioned and turned off to reenacting and living history. Successful native interpreters take control of the situation and decide that it is their mission to break down these stereotypes and incorrect historical narratives, and teach people that they are different. Some will have a goal that they reach just one person during the day to change their thinking. We need to break down the stereotypes. Of course, this means that they must have a willingness to talk to people, greet them when they come into the encampment, and engage them with meaningful conversation. Thus, taking control of the situation from the very beginning and they will lower the possibility of hearing the S word.

Incorrect stereotypes and incorrect historical narratives will be dispelled. People will learn that Native people were not all alcoholics. That they were not technologically inferior. That their society worked and adapted to change. And that they were not so reliant upon the American or European settlers, but that the settlers and even the army were dependent upon the support and cooperation of the local native population. Yes, the natives adapted quickly to trade goods, but it is not what helped them survive so much as the traders survived from the presence and economic trade from the Natives. I think that is an extremely important message that needs to be conveyed.

I think that we are blessed to have Tribal members who want to be interpreters. They are not reenacting, they are showing who they are. They are wonderful ambassadors showing a different way of life to those who will seek to be enlightened.
Current Location:
heading to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum
Current Mood:
contemplative contemplative
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