By Siobhan Millar, Exhibits Coordinator
When I was about 20, my sister and I did a weekend trip to Naples. At the time she lived in the Hammocks area of Kendall Drive in Miami. The Hammocks were as far south-west as one could live before reaching Krome Ave. Once there, it was bushy and isolated until you hit the Tamiami Trail. Then it was wildness again for miles, at least until you approached the Miccosukee Village. We made a point to stop and visit to look at the baskets, beadwork and, of course, watch the alligator wrestling. So what does this have to do with the Museum’s Blog? Little did I know then that nearly 30 years later I would be working as an exhibits developer for Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and developing an exhibit on what else, but Alligator Wrestling!
In 1991, alligator wrestling was on the decline from calls of abuse by animal activists. Back then I was, admittedly, clueless about the traditional cultural aspects that played a part in the practice of alligator wrestling. Having to develop an exhibit about alligator wrestling has challenged me in unexpected ways. With help from Jack Chalfant, Marlin Billie, Billy Walker, Clinton and James Holt, and Mike Gentry, I have a fuller understanding of how alligator wrestling affected the lives of Tribal Members.
The association between the Seminoles and alligator is long lasting, having begun with the hunt and capture of the reptile for survival. In the generations that followed, the hunt and trade of alligator hides with non-Seminole businesses helped Seminoles obtain supplies to sustain the camp. This became a transitioning point for Seminole men as they joined Florida’s emerging tourist industry and entered the alligator at non-Seminole attractions. Eventually, this association would help to support Tribal-run operations, and aid in some part financial independence.
There are also the aspects of respect regarding traditions and the respect for the animal and the dangers that inevitably go along with alligator wrestling. The wrestler’s respect for the alligator is far more apparent to me now than it was before. There have been shifts in attitudes, too. I am grateful for the personal and traditional stories Jack Chalfant, Billy Walker, Clinton and James Holt and Marlin Billie have shared with me. The alligator has helped shape the environment of the Everglades, home to the Seminole and Miccosukee, and provided life in so many ways – for birds, plants, and humans alike. For the Seminoles, alligators fed your families. With quiet unpredictability, the alligator allowed man to match his strength against his own.
There has been humbleness and learning from seeing the practice fall into decline with the rise of animal rights and near mishaps. There is now a focus on the educational and for some, like Clinton Holt, the more “holistic” approach of the animal’s wildness. Along the way, the Tribe’s alligator handlers have rolled with the changes. It is with the same resilience applied by their ancestors that the tradition is still alive. I am interested to see where the tradition goes from here.
To find out more, why not come and explore the exhibit Alligator Wrestling: Danger, Entertainment, Tradition; opening on December 16, 2019 at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.