The Right To Tell One's Own History : NPR Public Editor The Seminole Tribe of Florida disputes an NPR account.
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The Right To Tell One's Own History

Visitors to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Museum regard a letter dated February 9, 1774 on display in 2006. The letter was written by John Moultrie, the Lieutenant Governor of then British East Florida and addressed to 'The Cowkeeper, the founder of the Seminole Tribe of Florida' in which Moultrie asks The Cowkeeper for peace between the Seminoles and the British. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

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Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Visitors to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Museum regard a letter dated February 9, 1774 on display in 2006. The letter was written by John Moultrie, the Lieutenant Governor of then British East Florida and addressed to 'The Cowkeeper, the founder of the Seminole Tribe of Florida' in which Moultrie asks The Cowkeeper for peace between the Seminoles and the British.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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?

Gallagher told me, by email, "The 'facts' Ms. Beatrice gave Weeks were apparently 'facts' of yesteryear, from an old textbook or something published before the current wave of anthropological historians, the new theories and research, the new tools of hereditary science, etc. As I told you earlier, the Seminole Tribal website has had the correct history on the Tribal Web site, ever since the first Web site was created for the Tribe back in the early 1990s."

Weeks, who worked with his editor Scott Montgomery, NPR's managing editor for digital news, and standards and practices editor Mark Memmott to craft NPR's follow-up, told me (in a lightly condensed response):

The spokesperson who replied to me said her information came from the state's Historical Resources Division. I believed her and I believed that the information was factual and flowed from the knowledgeable and trustworthy historians and specialists on the Division's staff.

I didn't think a correction was appropriate because the Florida Department of State continues to tell a different story. This is from the DOS website on Oct. 21, 2015: "Seminole history begins with bands of Creek Indians from Georgia and Alabama who migrated to Florida in the 1700s. Conflicts with Europeans and other tribes caused them to seek new lands to live in peace."

And this is a fun fact from the Department of State website as of Oct. 21, 2015: "Question: Are the Seminole Indians the original people of Florida? Answer: No. The Seminole and Miccosukee people are descendants of Creek Indians who migrated from Georgia and Alabama to Spanish Florida in the early to mid-1700s. The original Indian people of Florida including the Timucua, Calusa, Apalachee, and other Indian groups were either killed by disease or warfare, captured as slaves, or they left Florida with the Spaniards. Visit our Seminole History page for more information."

I didn't think a correction was called for. I believe I inadvertently walked into a historical quarrel – manifest in dueling official websites — that dates back many years. A correction to our story would have effectively been a choosing of sides. I consulted with my editor and our Standards and Practices Editor – both of whom were kept abreast of the Seminole Tribe's concerns — to craft the follow-up language that now appears on my post. I felt like that was the responsible tack to take.

I talked to Beatrice, and she sent me the sources she relied on. When I asked her if she stands by her timeline, she wrote by email, "The Florida Department of State provided information to NPR based on historical, archival and academic sources available at the agency." But she then added: "Furthermore, the Department does not speak on behalf of any groups or entities outside of the agency." She also said she had suggested Weeks follow up with an official at the Seminole museum, as well as two historians.

My take? Historians often disagree, and how we think of "history" can evolve over time, as new facts come in. And because history has real-time consequences—in land claims, say, to cite just one example—it is often fought over.

As far as NPR's role in this particular dispute is concerned, I fall back to one of the most important rules in journalism: Make that extra phone call.

Weeks told me, "When I decided to write about the Seminole cowboys of Florida, I sent an email to a spokesperson for the Tribe. I did not hear back from anyone. If someone from the Seminole Tribe had answered my query, I would have probably incorporated their information into my story."

So if Weeks had sent a second email to the Tribe, or called them or followed up on Beatrice's suggestion to talk to a Seminole museum official, the piece would have likely contained a history that at least partly, if not wholly, reflected what the Tribe believes to be the truth. It's essentially due to random events—the Tribe says it did not receive the first email—that the state's version was the only one NPR ended up relying on.

NPR does not have to settle competing historical claims. But people—and in this case the Tribe, which is federally recognized and has tribal sovereignty—should be allowed to speak for themselves, or at least have their side aired. It's not the Tribe's fault that did not happen here.

It's unclear to me if that history is even still an issue. After the follow-up had been added to the article, Gallagher said, "My thoughts are that from something potentially negative politically to the Seminole Tribe a positive benefit has arisen via the Tribe's partnership with the State in sponsoring the Dec. 12 event titled "Who Are The Seminoles?" It will provide a long overdue examination of the Tribe's very misunderstood equity in Florida and greatly increase the knowledge of the accurate history of the Seminole Tribe of Florida."