NPR Ombudsman weighs in on fight between Seminoles and NPR over history

Historians in the News
tags: Native Americans, Indians, Seminole



Elizabeth Jensen is the NPR ombudsman.

On Sept. 3, NPR's history dept. blog published an article with the headline "The 'Indian Cowboys' Of Florida," which looked at the ranching history of the Florida Native Americans known as Seminoles. The source of the information was Meredith M. Beatrice, the director of communications for the Florida Department of State (her title was not included in the piece).

On Oct. 7, Peter B. Gallagher, special projects writer, Seminole communications, for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, emailed both the Ombudsman's office and the article's author, Linton Weeks, to say the report contained errors.

Rather than list them, however, Gallagher took the unusual step of including a link to an article, commissioned by the Tribe after the NPR piece was published, with a separate history of the Tribe's cowboy lineage. An introduction to the history explained:

The story contained errors of fact, including a miscalculation of the Seminole Indians' anthropological equity in Florida. Because the Seminole Tribe of Florida did not speak with NPR or Beatrice concerning this story, The Seminole Tribune contacted Patricia Riles Wickman, a leading historian, researcher and anthropologist regarding the Seminole Indians, and asked if she would correct the misinformation in the NPR report and detail the documented history of the Seminole Indians in Florida.


Gallagher later sent an email with a detailed list of what he said were the story's errors.

Last week, NPR posted the following at the bottom of its own article:

(Follow-up. When NPR set out to do this story, we sent an email to the Seminole Tribe of Florida. No one responded. We then turned to the Florida Department of State's Division of Historical Sources. After the piece was posted, the Seminole Tribe of Florida challenged some of the statements by the Florida Department of State and posted this essay on its news site. A spokesperson for the Seminole Tribe of Florida also tells us there will be a conference on the subject, "Who Are The Seminoles? Their Culture and Equity in the State of Florida", on Saturday, Dec. 12 in Tallahassee.)


The two histories—NPR's version and the one posted by the Tribe—vary in a number of ways; Gallagher called most of the variances "inconsequential." The main dispute is over what Gallagher calls "anthropological equity," by which he means the amount of time the Seminoles have been in Florida.

The Tribe's website says this (and the piece the Tribe commissioned by Wickman backs up this timeline):

The unique confluence of culture and circumstance which would become today's Seminole Tribe of Florida can be traced back at least 12,000 years, say researchers. There is ample evidence that the Seminole people of today are cultural descendants of Native Americans who were living in the southeastern United States at least that long ago. By the time the Spaniards "discovered" Florida (1513), this large territory held, perhaps, 200,000 Seminole ancestors in hundreds of tribes, all members of the Maskókî linguistic family.


NPR's piece, quoting Beatrice from the Dept. of State, places the Seminoles in the area much later, by hundreds, or even thousands, of years:

Europeans introduced livestock, such as beef cattle and swine, to the region in the early 16th century. Native Americans known as "Seminoles" migrated into Florida in the 18th century and incorporated livestock into their culture. By the middle of the 18th century, Seminole cattlemen worked large herds in northern and peninsular Florida.


So who is right? And should NPR have amended its piece to include a correction instead of a follow-up?...




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