This is Elizabeth Lowman, Oral History Coordinator, writing about oral history for you again. In the last several years I have been here, I have collected several oral history interviews and demos about alligator wrestling. A few excerpts of the interviews were featured in the podcast audio tour for Postcards and Perceptions. In this blog, I will outline the history of alligator wrestling and give you a rare glimpse into the perceptions of some of the Seminole Tribe’s current alligator wrestlers.
Click here to listen to the section on alligator wrestling from the exhibit Postcards and Perceptions: Alligator Wrestling
The stories of how alligator wrestling began differ from person to person. Alligator wrestlers, often through the narration of their alligator wrestling, explain that Seminoles had always hunted alligators for hides and meat. In order to have fresh meat, the alligator hunter would capture the alligator, tether it to a post in the campsite, and kill it when it was time for the meat to be harvested. Zack Battiest, alligator wrestler on the Hollywood reservation stated in an oral history interview, “it was mainly made for, back in the day, how we would get food. We would trade hides and stuff. A freshly caught alligator was better than a dead alligator, so it was even a food source, if need be.”[i]
Billy Walker, alligator wrestler on the Big Cypress Reservation continues by saying, “my Grandpa, he told me a long time ago, that tourists would come to see the Seminoles and Miccosukees when they were building these roads by the villages. And the Indian man would go and capture these gators, and my people would capture these gators, and tie them up for food. They would trade their hides and deer hides to the settlers in the coastal areas for beads, gunpowder, guns, and other materials. …More tourists would come out and see these men tying the gators up, tying up three or four alligators to keep at the camp while the younger generation of men would go out to hunt. The elders would usually stay back at the camp. …What happened, this was passed down from my Grandpa, is that tourist said it looked like the Indian man was wrestling the alligator. My Grandpa laughed and he said, ‘these gators were tied up for hides and food and stuff.’ The tourist threw money at the Indian man. Instead of going out to hunt for four or five days, they went to the store and provided for their family the same day. …I tell that story before I wrestle an alligator because I just don’t want to be hurting the alligator and messing with him, so I tell them where I come from and why I am able to touch this alligator.”[ii]
To see an alligator wrestling video, click here: Alligator Wrestling Video
In Patsy West’s book, Enduring Seminoles: From Alligator Wrestling to Ecotourism, she states that in 1910, an alligator farm tourist attraction was opened by Warren Frazee in Miami. West states, this is where alligator wrestling started. Frazee, was nicknamed “Alligator Joe” and was well-known for his alligator showmanship.[iii] She explains that there was a Seminole camp documented near the site of another alligator farm on the Miami River. West argues that the Seminole village and the alligator farm became a joint venture because of tourists’ interest. Furthermore, the tourist camp introduced Seminoles to alligator wrestling and tourism, she states.
Regardless of how it started, past and modern-day alligator wrestlers must first receive permission from the Snake Clan to touch an alligator. Betty Mae Jumper, former chairperson and Snake Clan, in an oral history interview stated, “alligator wrestlers are supposed to ask Alligator Clan, but since there is no Alligator Clan, they ask the Snake Clan.”[iv] Billy Walker, Everett Osceola, JR Battiest, and Zack Battiest all explained that the Snake Clan person they asked permission from stressed the importance of respecting the animal and always being safe. JR Battiest recalls Betty Mae Jumper giving him permission to wrestle alligators, “She said, ‘sit down. I am going to tell you about alligators.’ So, she sat me down and gave me a long lecture about respecting the animal, where it came from, that type of thing. It helped provide food and trading material for the Tribe. …She explained that I had to respect the animal like I would respect my own self. I wouldn’t do anything bad to myself, so don’t do anything bad to the animal because it’s going to feed you.”[v]
“They say the number one rule is– it’s not “if” you get bit, it’s when you get bit. Expect it,” says JR Battiest.[vi] “But don’t let it bother you. If it bothers you, stay out of the pit. You don’t want to get nailed. I’ve always expected to get bit; I expected at every show. I would just wonder how bad it was going to be. I’ve seen where thumbs actually came off and the muscle up to the elbow came with it and hit the ground.”[vii]
James Billie, former chairmen and alligator wrestler, recalls how he lost his finger, “There is really nothing to wrestling alligators, you just have to keep your fingers out of their mouths… I literally stuck my hand in the alligator’s mouth, I thought it was closed and pushed it down. Checked his mouth. I didn’t know what was wrong with his mouth, it would just not close. So I stuck my finger in there and that was it.”[viii]
Alligator wrestling was popular through the height of tourism, the early to mid-1900s, and remains popular today. Each and every show puts the wrestler at serious risk of bodily injury. As a tradition, whether from tourism or neccessity, alligator wrestling continues to withstand the test of time as a traditional sport.
For more information on the Oral History Program at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Museum, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i]JR Battiest, Zack Battiest, Everett Osceola. Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Museum. Oral History Collection. OH2009.37.1.
[ii] Billy Walker. Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Museum. Oral History Collection. OH2009.1.1.
[iii] Patsy West. Enduring Seminoles: From Alligator Wrestling to Ecotourism. University Press of Florida: Gainesville, FL. 1998.
[iv] Betty Mae Jumper. Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Museum. Oral History Collection. OH1994.1.1.
[viii] James E. Billie. Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Museum. Oral History Collection. OH2009.13.1.