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Acknowledging the people who came before

Humans first settled in the Tampa Bay region around 15,000 years ago, according to archaeological findings.

For most of that time, Indigenous communities of hunter gatherers built a prosperous life on Florida’s largest open-water estuary. Taking advantage of the region’s rich resources, Native American nations such as the Calusa, the Tocobaga, and in more recent times the Seminole and Miccosukee would harvest all they needed from both the land and the sea to develop sizeable populations and rich cultures.

“Not only did Tampa Bay have all the land resources such as animals to hunt and wood to collect for fuel, but vast coastal resources such as fish to harvest,” said John Arthur, a professor of anthropology at USF’s St. Petersburg campus. “They never had to take up farming because the resources along the coast were so bountiful.”

Much of that changed with the discovery of the new world by European explorers, followed by conquistadors and settlers. Warfare, genocide and especially diseases that Indigenous communities had no natural immunity against became rampant and unraveled the fabric of their society.

“The effect was that populations were decimated and the communities that lived here in Tampa Bay when the Spanish arrived no longer live here today,” explained Arthur.

The region today would be unrecognizable to the Indigenous communities that came before. Ceremonial sites, vast wetlands and villages are now sports arenas, shopping malls and hotels. Evidence of the Indigenous communities that flourished for so many years has largely vanished from the landscape.

USF’s St. Petersburg campus, collaborating with Native American nations and community partners, is working to shine a spotlight on that forgotten history. By acknowledging those who came before, honoring their cultures and establishing partnerships with Indigenous communities still present in Florida, the campus is remembering a prosperous and painful history while building bridges for future opportunity.

“Those who came before helped shape who we are today,” said David Sheddon, head of special collections and university archives at the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library on the St. Petersburg campus. “This isn’t just the story about Indigenous people from thousands of years ago, it is about all of us today. It’s an ongoing journey.”

A visit to the source

In early March of 2020, two staff members from USF’s St. Petersburg campus, Michelle Madden and Emily Mann, took a trip down to the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in the heart of the Everglades. There, in one of the last remaining expanses of Florida’s natural environment, they met with representatives of the state’s largest remaining Indigenous community.

“I was struck by how removed it was from everything else,” said Madden, USF’s St. Petersburg campus diversity officer. “There was no major road to it. I got the sense that they lived in a place where they were forced to locate.”

The meeting came about because Madden and Mann wanted to produce a Native American land acknowledgment for the campus. Prior to the trip, each had attended separate conferences that began with a land acknowledgment, a formal statement that recognizes the long history of Indigenous communities in a local area and honors their stewardship.

Together, they began organizing a group of faculty, staff, students and experts in the community to work on a land acknowledgment statement for the St. Petersburg campus.

“When we reached out and informed them of what we wanted to do with our own land acknowledgment, the Seminole tribe invited us down to Big Cypress to see their museum and find out more about their history and culture,” said Mann, a librarian at the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library.

Working with the Seminoles, the group finalized a statement that touches on the history of Indigenous tribes on the campus land and their forced removal, the respect for their culture and a call to be better stewards of the land. For both the tribe and the campus community, the land acknowledgment is the start of what they hope to be a fruitful partnership.

“They didn’t want the land acknowledgment just to be something that was said and forgotten about. They wanted it to be a pact that we would start working with them and think about them as a living people,” said Mann. “We wanted it to tell a story but also to start a conversation.”

The St. Petersburg campus land acknowledgement was followed shortly thereafter by a statement from USF’s Department of Anthropology, which formally recognized the land on which the USF Tampa campus sits as the historical home of the Seminoles, as well as other groups including the Calusa and Tocobaga.

A living people

Indigenous communities can sometimes be talked about as a historical footnote, but they are very much a living people. USF’s St. Petersburg campus Regional Chancellor Martin Tadlock foresees mutually beneficial opportunities and outcomes by developing a stronger relationship with the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes of Florida.

“We should work closely with high schools that serve Indigenous populations and make sure we provide every opportunity for students to have access and pathways to an affordable higher education,” said Tadlock, who is a member of the Pee Dee Indian Tribe of South Carolina.

A strong partnership with Indigenous communities can enhance understanding of the multifaceted history of Florida while creating a more inclusive environment on campus, exposing all university students to traditions and customs that they wouldn’t typically encounter.

“As a university, we are about helping people understand what goes on today as well as what came before, and that includes dispelling stereotypes and mythologies about different peoples and cultures,” said Tadlock. “For example, partnering with Indigenous communities could provide a great opportunity to bring historical records and documents to university campuses, creating an archival site that facilitates research and teaching about those communities and their culture.” 

Other potential actions include developing scholarships for Indigenous students and creating ongoing art and education exhibits. All the while, organizers of this initiative would ensure Indigenous people are heard from and listened to throughout the process.

“We want them to be involved and get their perspective and understand what is it that we are not asking ourselves,” said Madden. “What are the questions we are overlooking that can inform future research and projects?”

The ultimate goal is to hear from and learn about distinct cultures. Organizers hope this process is the first step toward respecting this land through environmental stewardship and welcoming all to it, especially those who are descendants of the people who lived here before. In addition, they want to remind people that Indigenous communities such as the Seminole are not a historical footnote, but very much a part of Florida today.

“We want Indigenous students here and that when they step foot onto our campus, they feel welcome, they feel acknowledged,” said Arthur, who is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. “This is very important to me and to the other members of the USF St. Petersburg Campus community to continue to work and build a relationship with the Indigenous communities here.”

Land Acknowledgement Statement
The University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus wishes to acknowledge and honor the Indigenous communities who lived and took stewardship of this land. The university recognizes that this campus was built on the Indigenous homelands and resources of the Seminole, Miccosukee, and Tocobaga people as well as their ancestors going back over 10,000 years. We acknowledge the painful history of genocide and forced removal from their territory, and we honor and respect the many diverse Indigenous people still connected to this land on which we gather. This is a call for all of us to commit to continuing to learn how to be better stewards of the land we inhabit.

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