FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - A miniature blast of gunpowder and a plume of noxious white smoke once embedded gradations of gray onto delicate glass sheets. A hundred or more years later the equipment used to perform this trick is most likely gone to dust and the magician is long departed. But the miracle of the photograph remains.
The images of the brave souls who stood before the onslaught of the artillery-like cameras are preserved for eternity.
Floridian historian Patsy West has spent 30 years gathering, identifying and sorting images of the local American Indian tribes in an effort to ensure the posterity of those people.
"The Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes of Southern Florida" by Patsy West is a welcome addition to Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series.
The 128-page soft-cover book is a photographic essay of the "unconquered people" of the Everglades from 1852 to the present day. If you follow the old adage that a picture is worth 1,000 words, then this small book is really a lengthy historical tome with over 223,000 words (that equals 223 photos for those of us who dislike math).
Patsy West discovered her life's calling after she saw four glass-plate negatives from 1892 that were found in her family's home. West's ancestors were among the first non-Native families to settle in the rugged area of Little River, Miami, Fla. and they were immersed in Seminole and Miccosukee culture.
"I was working at the Museum of Southern Florida and I had four piles of photographs that were all unidentified," said West in a June 6 interview with Indian Country Today.
West had one huge advantage going for her as an archivist. She had access to a big photocopy machine, which was rare in 1972.
"I asked Howard Tommie, the Seminole chairman, if I could take [the photocopies] to Seminole Fair and have them identified. He said 'sure' because I wasn't selling anything - it was for free. So I sat up for years underneath a tree and I had people come up and identify and enjoy the photographs and that is how the project began."
West's collection now contains over 10,000 photographs that she preserves in an archive in her home. She makes the photographs available to tribal members and she provided them to the Seminole Tribune to accompany the 199 articles she has written for their newspaper.
"I felt [the book] was something I could give back to the tribes really quick," said West.
West authored the short captions to accompany each image and guide the narrative in a meaningful direction. "It was terrible difficult to choose 200 photographs out of 10,000," she said.
"I tried to weigh it so it wasn't a really lame photograph that had something to do with the caption, but I really tried to continue the story and let the story semi-dictate what photos I would use. I wanted to continue the story more than anything. I tried to artfully craft it."
West is the author of University Press of Florida's 'The Enduring Seminoles: From Alligator Wrestling to Ecotourism,' and co-author of 'A Seminole Legend: The Life of Betty Mae Tiger Jumper.'
"The good thing about "The Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes" from Arcadia is that it is really the only place to go get a very 'quick fix' of Seminole and Miccosukee history," West said of the photographic essay style of the book.
"You know they are a small enough tribe, maybe around 3,500 people, most people don't know anything about them at all. I am hoping that when they go through that book they will read the captions, and if they do, they will have a better grasp on those people than anybody."
At first West was nervous that the book wasn't up to her 'scholarly standards,' but when she found out that a teacher at the University of Florida was requiring "The Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes of Southern Florida" as a textbook, she felt liberated.
"Well, I have done my job," she laughed.
Arcadia Publishing specializes in regional photojournalistic paperbacks and features vintage subjects like 'Postcard History' and 'Making of America.' For more information on Arcadia's other titles, write to Arcadia Publishing, 2 Cumberland St., Charleston, S.C. 29401, visit www.arcadiapublishing.com or phone (843) 853-2070.