I recently travelled alone to the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation to attend the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum's 18th Annual American Indian Arts Celebration. The Big Cypress Indian Reservation is located in a remote area of the Everglades in Hendry County, Florida. It's one of many Seminole reservations throughout Florida, including Tampa, Hollywood, Brighton, Immokalee and Fort Pierce. I had never been on a reservation prior to this visit but was motivated by my interest in learning about traditional and contemporary arts of First Nation people, even more so after hearing Wayne Smoke Snellsgrove speak about Native spirituality.
After passing the Miccosukee Reservation along I-75, I detoured down a two lane road that stretched for miles. The sky opened up to meet the land and I was acutely aware of my isolation. As I descended deeper into the back roads I had a brief concern - what if my car breaks down? Who will find me here? The wide open space made the sky feel oppresive. The weight of the clouds were like bricks. I passed acres of land pocked with posts proudly illustrating that a cattle farm lived there. In the distance, my first people sighting in 18 miles! I witness teenagers playing in an expansive field, meandering around a mountainous stretch of trees. It is beautiful here.
I am invited onto Big Cypress by it's large sign and pass several thatched roof structures. I later learn these are called chickees, which means "house" in the Creek and Mikasuki languages spoken by the Seminoles and Miccosukees. It is a shelter supported by posts, with a raised floor, a thatched roof and open sides. The chikees share space with very modern buildings as well - homes of middle to upper class residents. There are pools and daycare centers, a school, medical facilities, First Baptist churches, and centers for seniors. I suddenly feel silly for fearing any automobile trouble. Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum is bustling with people. I was genuinely surprised at how many non-Native people had gathered in this remote place. Girl Scout Troops, cowboys, lawyers from West Palm Beach, musicians, schools, crafts people, and Florida Crackers - we all communed to celebrate the Seminole people and American Indian traditions.
I felt tethered to the earth.
I took this image at the mile-long boardwalk that winds through a cypress dome swamp.
Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki means a place to learn, a place to remember. Admittedly, although I presumed to enter this experience without expectactions I failed to anticipated how embraced I would feel.
The Warriors of AniKituhwa travelled all the way from Cherokee, North Carolina! What a great group of guys.
This picture breaks my heart with happiness. This little guy is wearing a traditional patchwork shirt.
My new buddy, Anna, also a graduate student earning her MFA from the University of Miami danced with the Cherokees. It is amazing when you step out into the world how the ground rises to meet you. Or in this case, friendship.
Elgin Jumper, an American Indian artist, was painting a narrative picture. This was his pallette.
Patchwork designs are all handmade. There is no pattern. Everything is created from memory. Patchwork is a signifier of identity, biography and the vibrant visual symbol of the survival of the Seminoles.
Cherokee dancers peforming "Bear Dance".
On the mainstage, a blend of folky blues and Woody Guthrie rawness. Themes of the land, old Florida, the swamp permeated the music. A reminder that many Seminoles are cowboys.
Cypress Billie, an impressive mullett and a unique sound.
Check out this video of the Cherokee Dancers:
Billie Swamp shows off his balls of steel and a tradition of the Seminoles: gator wrestling. Billie Swamp owns Billie Swamp Safari's which is on the Big Cypress Reservation. You might have seen him and the crew on the Nat Geo series Swamp Men.
this is called Gator Jump Rope.
A gator smile, everybody!
spooning with the gator
I'm not sure this one had a name - insanity, perhaps.
checked an item off the bucket list!
Me and the Warriors of AniKituhwa - Cherokee
Every blade of grass reverberated with a palpable energy on Big Cypress. As the sun was setting on the Cherokee dancers I felt a sense of gratitude wash over me. I welcomed the breeze and felt truly grateful for this wide open space and the people that live on it.
SHO NA BISH = Thank You