Brigita Leader, Seminole Nation of Oklahoma Historic Preservation Office, pauses during a prescribed fire to share the stone flakes found at Tall Timbers.

Reconnecting to Land and Fire

This summer Tall Timbers was honored with the opportunity to welcome members of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma back to their ancestral lands and share the latest in prescribed fire science. This pairing of sacred places and modern science is an intentional approach detailed by Theodore Isham and Brigita Leader in a grant awarded by the Cultural Resources Fund to the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. Prescribed fire was a natural topic for the project, given the deep connection between Native Americans and stewardship of the land with fire.

Eight college-aged participants traveled with staff from the Seminole Historic Preservation Office to join Tall Timbers for a series of field activities, lectures, and cultural exchange. The goals of our guests included experiencing their ancestral landscape and learning more about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) practices with a connection to the traditional identity of the Seminole Nation. This concept that traditional identity and science are not mutually exclusive was a core concept of the visit.

Mary Mack Gray, Tall Timbers Stoddard Bird Lab, transfers a Bachman’s Sparrow to, Caitlin Fixico Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, for release after banding and measuring.

After watching prescribed fire in a longleaf pine-wiregrass restoration area at Tall Timbers, the students started sharing stories about family members back in Oklahoma who continue the practice of burning vegetation in their yards and ceremonial grounds. One of the students, Caitlin Fixico, laughed as she explained that “I didn’t really think about it being good for the environment until now, it’s just what Auntie has always done.”

The group concluded their stay in the Tallahassee area with a half-day float trip down the Wacissa River on kayaks with the always helpful guide services of Harry Smith from Harry Smith Outdoors. David Ward from the Aucilla Research Institute joined to share more about the profound history of humans in the Aucilla-Wacissa basin.

The Aucilla Research Institute has been a major proponent of research at the Page-Ladson site that has yielded explicit evidence of human habitation, including a stone knife and mastodon tusk, dated at over 14,500 years old. Participants were struck by the beauty of this river and the remarkable history of native people there.

The weight of human history and ecological assets in the Aucilla-Wacissa basin also drive Tall Timbers land conservation work in the area. Current projects include promoting alternatives to a proposed toll road and seeking funding through Florida Forever for a conservation easement that would permanently protect the privately owned Page-Ladson cultural site and the natural resources surrounding it.

Kevin Hiers, Tall Timbers Wildland Fire Science Program, leads a field discussion on prescribed fire effects.

As with so many of our projects, a team of Tall Timbers staff members pulled together to deliver a quality program. Thanks to Kevin Hiers, Dr. Eric Rowell, Scott Pokswinski, La’Portia Perkins, Dr. Kevin Robertson, Rob Meyer, Mary Mack Gray, Matt Snider, and Brian Wiebler. A special thanks to Rachel Smith, wife of Dr. Eric Rowell, for consulting on this project to bring a native perspective to our planning, and a wonderful thoughtfulness regarding cultural traditions during the visit.

We look forward to future opportunities to collaborate with Native Americans, as learning certainly goes both ways in such exchanges. We are each developing a new lens to look at the forest. The little dwarf willow is now also Mekko Hoyenecv, a sacred plant used to reduce pain and inflammation. Flakes of stone on a path are signs of the native hunters and original stewards of the pine savannas we love. As Kevin Hiers, Wildland Fire Scientist, commented, “I want to burn with Caitlin’s Auntie! Just think of the traditional knowledge passed down that informs her decisions about burning.”

The Seminoles, and the tribes that formed them, have a rich and difficult history in Florida. Your journey to learn more about this part of American history can begin with simple internet search. Also consider the book Ticks and Politics published by Tall Timbers Press, for a photographic look at the work of Roy Komarek with the Seminole Tribe of Florida during the early 1940s.

Randy Ahhaitty, Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, shows off a live video feed of three southern flying squirrels napping in a red-cockaded woodpecker cavity. Rob Meyer, Tall Timbers Stoddard Bird Lab, mans the camera on a long pole peeping into the cavity and transmitting the image as he explains that while the tiny squirrels are certainly the cutest cavity kleptoparasite around, they can be an issue for expanding the red-cockaded woodpecker nesting opportunities.

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