Canoe Building: A Journey From History to the Present

Recently, the Museum sponsored an initiative with Outreach Coordinator Pedro Zepeda aptly called “The Canoe Project.”  Pedro sat down with many community members from all of the reservations and discussed the benefits of bringing the art of canoe building back to life.  Pedro pointed out, in an oral history interview, that as long as there have been Natives and trees, there have been canoes. 

Canoe Launching at Smallwoods Store


A canoe and the end of canoe poles
Canoe Polling

  The canoe project turned into action when several tribal members converged on the Okalee Indian Village in Hollywood behind the Hard Rock.  The men were axing away at the cypress log and shaping it perfectly.  The oral history program documented the building of the canoe.  Then, weeks later, the group set off to Chokoloskee to the Smallwoods Store.  At Smallwoods Store the small group participated in canoe polling.  Polling is different than paddling a canoe.  The pole is dropped all the way to the ground and the canoe is pushed.  There is a small paddle at the end of the pole for steering.  Historically, some poles came equipped with a needle at the end to “gig” garfish. 

                Seminole dugout canoes are made from cypress trees.  Cypress trees covered central and south Florida prior to 1940.  In the early 1900s to about 1940, almost every cypress tree in the state was logged out.  Some Seminole canoes were over 30 feet in length and could carry and entire family and all of their possessions.  That is not possible today because the cypress trees are still re-growing from the original logging.  It takes hundreds of years for a cypress tree to reach maturity.  You can read about cypress trees HERE

Canoe building at Okalee Indian Village

                There are several notable Seminoles who built canoes.  Their work is still seen in museums across the state.  One of the most photographed (and skilled) was a Seminole man named Charlie Cypress.  Charlie’s family often stayed at the Seminole Village in Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute located at Silver Springs in the early to mid-1900s.  Charlie Cypress lived to be over 100 years old and built numerous canoes.  Charlie’s work is documented through the many canoes he left behind; however, almost three years ago a document was located in the Albert Devane Collection at the Special Florida Collections at the University of Florida.  In this document, someone had sat down with Charlie and recorded some of his specific methods.  The unnamed author claimed “There have been probably only about five highly skilled Seminole canoe-makers since 1900.” 

Oral History Coordinator Elizabeth Lowman recording the canoe project.
A sketch of Charlie Cypress by Robert West. Found in the Albert Devane Collection at the University of Florida's Special Collections.
Albert Devane Collection. University of Florida Special Collections.

                The author wrote, “Charlie Cypress, a full-blooded Mikasuki Seminole of the Otter Clan, was born in the south Florida wilderness in 1869.  His birthplace was a chickee in a small Seminole village; and his early training completely lacked in any form of the white man’s education.  But in the ways of the wilds young Charlie was a top scholar.  In hunting, fishspearing, and making dugout canoes his training from older members of his tribe was excellent.” 

Listen to several accounts of Silver Springs, Charlie Cypress, and Charlie Cypress’s grandson re-tell a legend taught to him by his grandfather: HERE.

                Canoes became unnecessary with the drainage of the everglades, the paving of roads (especially US 41 or Tamiami Trail), airboats, and the reduction of land that the Seminoles had access to.  Many other tribes across the country are building canoes again and even now racing them at Native festivals.  Click on some of the links below to read about what other tribes are doing:

For more information about oral history, contact me at

Elizabeth Lowman


Alligator Wrestling: The Stories of the Men Who Do It

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]     

Bill Walker AIAC 2009


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. 

Zach Battiest

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   

[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.

[v] OH2009.37.1. 

[vi] Ibid. 

[vii] Ibid. 

[viii] James E. Billie.  Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Museum.  Oral History Collection.  OH2009.13.1. 

Losing the Glades: Everglades Drainage and Restoration

The exhibition Surviving to Thriving: An Everglades Economy is opening in October at the Museum.  One of the many topics evaluated in the exhibit is the effects of Everglades drainage and restoration on the Seminole Tribe and South Florida in general.  Although I was familiar with the topic when I started developing interviews for the audio tour, I did not know enough about the everglades ecosystem or the laws that shaped Everglades restoration.  In order to understand better, I undertook hours of research and several Oral History interviews. 

            The Everglades, as an ecosystem, is only about 5,000 years old and spans from Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.  The land is flat, has virtually no shade, and the ecosystem is very fragile.  The Everglades’ elevation is at its highest at Lake Okeechobee, about 30 feet, and declines from the lake to Florida’s tip.  Craig Tepper, the Seminole Tribe’s Water Resource Management Director, explained to me in an Oral History interview that the decline in elevation allows for the water to run from the south banks of Lake Okeechobee out to the ocean.  The water runs slowly over blocks of limestone, created from thousands of years of shellfish build-up, Tepper explained.  The limestone, being one of the elements that makes the Everglades so fragile, is porous and allows for aquifers to recharge and wildlife to be mobile under the surface.  The Everglades are also fragile because they naturally lack phosphorus.  Unfortunately, explained Tepper, run-off from various agricultural enterprises has introduced phosphorus into the ecosystem, which helps exotic plants such as cattail, melaleuca, nephthytis, and Brazilian pepper trees to thrive and overtake native plants. 

Nephthyytis in the cypress dome behind Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki.

            In 1904, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward “declared war” on the Everglades.  He promised to drain the Everglades and turn it into a bustling metropolis.  He did not accomplish his goal, but the “Broward Era” certainly started the ball rolling on Everglades drainage.  The State of Florida made many attempts from 1905 until recent years to tame the Everglades.  In 1926 and 1928, devastating hurricanes blew over Florida killing an estimated 2,500 people.  After such devastation, the US Army Corp of Engineers took over Everglades drainage in the interest of public safety.  They erected huge levees around Lake Okeechobee and carved out more canals and retention ponds.  Then, in 1947, mother nature fought back again dropping hundreds of inches of rain, naturally reclaiming her lost lands.  The US Army Corp of Engineers fought back again, re-carving the canals and ponds.  The US Army Corp of Engineers even released a movie called “Waters of Destiny” showing how they would “drain” the Everglades.  (The video can be viewed at the Florida Memory Project:  Finally in 1948, Congress passed and adopted the Central and Southern Florida Project (C&SF), Florida’s first comprehensive water management program.   (South Florida Water Management District timeline: 

            Everglades drainage, and current efforts to restore the landscape, have made a large impact on Seminole lands.  In an interview I conducted with a Seminole man who is 80 years old, he pointed to a ring on a tree and said, “The water used to come up to here.  It has not been that high since I was a small boy.”  In the 1920s and onward, canoe trails the Seminoles depended on to move trade items dried up, wildlife and game slowly disappeared, and the growing Florida population encroached on what was once Seminole land.  Reservations were granted to the Seminoles in 1938 by the State of Florida in Big Cypress, Brighton, and Hollywood, but the grant of land did not assist in helping the Seminoles as they watched their means of living through trade and hunting, the Everglades, retract from its natural flow.  

            In 1991, the Florida legislature passed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Everglades Protection Act, which called for Everglades Restoration.  Then, in May of 2000, the State of Florida passed appropriations to fund half of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).  (CERP timeline:  In January of 2000, the Seminole Tribe of Florida signed an agreement with the US Army Corp of Engineers, which helped to clean 1.7 billion gallons of water that flow into the Everglades everyday.  It was the first of many projects the Seminole Tribe has participated in. 

            On September 13, 2002 in testimony of the Seminole Tribe of Florida to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, the Tribe declared, “Now, in 2002, the Seminole Tribe contributes to the protection of the Everglades ecosystem.  Our people are willing participants in this massive restoration undertaking.  The Big Cypress Critical Restoration Project is an integral part of the overall ecosystem restoration.  We look forward to our neighbors and all stakeholders continuing to make the necessary commitment to restoring the South Florida ecosystem through CERP implementation and other programs.  Without such a commitment, restoration will not be achieved.” 

Scenery on the boardwalk


Recommended Reading:

Majory Stoneman Douglas, The Everglades: River of Grass.  Pineapple Press: Sarasota, 2007. 

Michael Grunwald, The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and Politics of Paradise.  Simon and Schuster: New York, 2006.

South Florida Water Management District.  Discover a Watershed: The Everglades.  The Watercourse: Bozeman, MT, 1996.

Postcards and Perceptions: Community Oral History in Exhibit Development

This year the Exhibits Department revamped an old postcard exhibit, which is scheduled to open at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki on March 6th, 2010.  The original, and new, exhibit displayed postcards of the Seminole Tribe that were sold all over the country for decades.  The postcards often had politically incorrect text and sometimes inappropriate names as labels.  The flipside to the seemingly bad postcards was the glimpses into people’s lives and the documentation of times past.

One of the unfortunate problems with the postcards was that the people depicted in them were largely unidentified.  The lack of identification muffled the story of the people in the picture by not allowing them to tell their own story.  In an effort to remedy the situation, I took the postcards that are to be featured in the exhibit to every tribal senior center to have them identified.  I also took the postcards out to the community and brought them with me to interviews with people.

Community oral history in action at a "Seminole Storytellers" event

On one very lucky day, the Big Cypress Senior Center was hosting their annual Christmas party.  I was able to speak with seniors from Big Cypress, Hollywood, Brighton, Immokalee, Tampa, and the Miccosukee Tribe.  Additionally, the seniors also identified most of the pictures from the Randle-Sheffield Collection, which is a travelling exhibit from the South Florida Community College Museum of Florida Art and Culture and is currently featured in the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki gallery.

There are two very memorable events that came from the Christmas party.  The first event was a chance encounter.  One postcard features the Brighton Day School.  In the picture, several children are lined up in front of the day school’s bus.  I recognized some of my friends from Brighton and joined their table.  I asked if they knew any of the children in the picture.  Much to my surprise everyone at the table had attended the Brighton Day School and they were all in the picture.  After labeling all of the children, they shared wonderful stories about the school and the school teachers- Mr. and Mrs. Boehmer.

The other event was with a senior in Big Cypress who had often refused interviews with me.  While flipping through the pictures she came to a page where her entire family had been photographed in the early Florida tourist attractions called Silver Springs and Tropical Hobbyland.  She identified several postcards and graciously told me about growing up in tourist camps that had Seminole camps such as Musa Isle, Tropical Hobbyland, and Silver Springs.

In the end, most of the people in the postcards were identified and many stories about the people were collected and shared.  The seniors from all of the reservations enjoyed the opportunity to look at the old postcards and talk about them and their experiences.  As an employee of the tribe, my times at the senior centers and in the community are the times I cherish the most.  Often, I unexpectedly learn something about myself or my life from one of the seniors.  In the end, the entire staff at the museum pulled together to bring the community, and our museum visitors, an exhibit that will truly be an experience.

"Seminole Storytellers" event at the ceremonial grounds at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum

Postcards and Perceptions: Culture as Tourism is scheduled for a soft opening  on February 12th, 2010 and there is a opening reception on March 6th, 2010 at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum located on the Big Cypress Reservation.  For more information, contact the museum directly at 863-902-1113.  The exhibit will also feature an audio tour where museum guests will get to hear the stories behind the postcards from the people depicted in them.

The Oral History Program Hits the Road…

I left Florida bound for the Oral History Association Conference in Louisville Kentucky where I presented a paper called “Native American Oral Tradition v. Oral History: Dispelling Myths, Saving Language, Non-traditional Methods, and Unlikely Interpretations.”

I left Florida bound for the Oral History Association Conference in Louisville Kentucky where I presented a paper called “Native American Oral Tradition v. Oral History: Dispelling Myths, Saving Language, Non-traditional Methods, and Unlikely Interpretations.”  My paper highlighted some of the distinctions between oral history and oral traditions.  The paper was well received and opened the door for future discussions about how Native Americans define Oral History.

I then flew right from Kentucky to Portland, Oregon for the Tribal Archives Libraries and Museums (TALM) conference.  I taught back to back 4 hour workshops- Oral History for Beginners and Intermediate to Advanced Oral History.  The room was jam packed with people from Tribes all over the country and their employees.  Everyone was so enthusiastic to learn about Oral History and how to start a program, develop projects, use the latest technology, interview techniques, and much more. 

Elizabeth Lowman presenting at TALM 2009
Elizabeth Lowman presenting at TALM 2009

Some of the biggest concerns other Tribes had was collections access, language, and technology.  Participants talked about problems they were all facing with collections management, technological advances, and ethics.  In the end, participants walked away from the workshop with better understanding of Oral History, methods, technology, and everyone made connections with other people. 

Pedro Zepeda, the Museum’s Traditional Art Coordinator, and I are presenting about using oral histories in museums and Traditional Arts later on in the conference.  We look forward to assisting other Tribes as they grow and develop their own programs.  Another plus of attending the conference is looking forward to learning and being inspired by the work of other Tribes as well.