Tribal identity a priority for Seminole ethnohistorian

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HOLLYWOOD, Fla. ? The Seminole Tribe of Florida took a huge step toward preserving its social history when it created a Department of Anthropology and Genealogy in 1995 at its headquarters here.

Directed by ethnohistorian Patricia R. Wickman, PhD, the department primarily serves members of the tribe. Its central mission is to preserve records that reconstruct tribal families and clans bound by blood and fictive kinship throughout Seminole history. Wickman and her staff research old records and conduct oral history interviews with tribal members to construct the Seminole cultural and genealogical record from the 16th century to the present.

"To do this kind of research, you must have the discipline and the patience to dig and dig and dig," says Wickman. "Doing history is 95 percent perspiration and five percent inspiration. Curiosity and creativity are essential. Locating individuals, institutions, and outside archives that are sources of Seminole information takes ingenuity. You have to ask the right questions of the right people in the right places at the right time. Ethnohistory is not just the what and when of the world, it's the why and the why not."

Wickman holds classes in Seminole history for tribal members, and writes books and articles about Seminole culture. "Seminole Lives: The People and Their World, a Tour With Chief James Billie," is a history of the tribe. "Seminole Colors," a teaching tool, is a coloring book for children featuring black and white line drawings of scenes from everyday Seminole life. She also writes and produces educational audio and video materials that preserve Seminole culture and language. She was historical consultant for a television documentary, "How the West Was Lost: The Unconquered, the Seminoles," a Discovery production which won a cable ACE Award for Best Historical Documentary Series.

Her work often takes her into the Everglades where much Seminole history took place. Truly to understand the Seminole culture, she said, it's important to go where they went and do what they did. She even tries to reconstruct their activities by hosting camping trips in the swamp for visiting researchers and students.

Documentation is critical, said Wickman, and she is vigilant in her pursuit of her findings. "Not only do I want to know what happened, I want to know why it happened and how it happened," she said. Merely to learn the name of someone in an old photograph is not sufficient. She also wants to know who the parents and grandparents of that person were, what their special skills and talents were, and where and how they lived as well as why they left one camp to move to another.

"It takes an extreme sense of curiosity to do this work," she said.

The majority of the genealogical research conducted by Wickman and her staff is for use by Seminole Tribe members, and is not open to others.

The department's archival collection holds more than 5,000 photographs. They are identified and accessible by a number-and-alphanumeric code Wickman developed that describes the content and location of each one. Many of the photos and documents are old and deteriorating, so they must be handled with care. The archival area is temperature- and humidity-controlled. Researchers wear white gloves when handling anything since acid or other body chemicals can ruin or destroy a document or photograph.

A specially designed computer program stores information on the genealogy of every member of every Seminole family and clan. Even though the extensive genealogical records are closed, they aid in establishing tribal identity. Wickman and her staff assist people who are searching for ancestors they believe may have been Seminole.

To respond to the hundreds of phone calls, letters and e-mails they received from all over the world, the department has developed a program called "Relatively Speakin'." Individuals conducting genealogical investigation are provided with a booklet, "So You Think There's a Seminole in Your Family Tree?" and a family tree chart that may be completed and returned to the department for evaluation.

Wickman came to the Seminole Tribe of Florida in 1992 as historical consultant at the invitation of the then-tribal chairman. In 1995, she became director of the newly created Department of Anthropology and Genealogy, a move that provided support and long-term continuity for the research she was already doing.

"I report to the Tribal Council, which is the elected body that governs the Seminole Tribe of Florida and is its ultimate authority," she said. "I let them know what I am doing. I have to satisfy them that I'm spending their money wisely, and that I am doing things they and their constituencies consider important.

"But they are very busy, so sometimes I have to bribe them with food in order to get them in here to see what's going on," she laughed.

Once a year Wickman conducts a major project to raise the visibility of the department's work and activities.

Wickman had significant experience in oral history collection before she came to the Seminole Tribe. She studied with Sam Proctor at the University of Florida who collected for the Doris Duke Indian Oral History project. In addition, she has trained collectors of oral histories all over the state.

As a non-Indian working for the Seminole Tribe, she feels the success of her department has depended on her willingness to meet and interact with tribal members on their own terms and let them develop trust in their own time.

"I'm not exactly sure how I came to be with the Seminole Tribe, but ? and I don't want to sound too metaphysical here ? I know that I'm supposed to be here," she said.

"There is never a day that goes by that I do not draw upon some experience that I had before, or something that I learned someplace else. If I were not a historian, if I were not well grounded in history and the critical method of history, I would never have been able to amass and assess the wealth of information I have for the tribe."