Bringing Seminole Art to Disney

By Chelsea Nielsen, Registrar

In April, the Museum’s Conservator Robin Croskery Howard and I completed a courier trip to Disney’s Epcot theme park to rotate objects in the exhibit “Creating Tradition: Innovation and Change in American Indian Art” in the American Adventure pavilion. Since the exhibit opened in 2018, the Museum has changed the objects on display five times allowing us to share more of the collection and, therefore, more of the Seminole story. Rotating objects also ensures their safety by limiting the amount of time they are exposed to potentially damaging conditions such as dust and light.

We worked with Walt Disney Imagineering’s curator to take down eight objects and install four dolls, a dress, and bigshirt that will be on display for the next six months. We used a steamer to remove wrinkles on the clothing before placing them on mannequins, and secured the dolls to specially designed mounts. The six objects are a mix from the past and present, since the exhibit aims to show how ancestral craftsmanship inspires contemporary art.  

Chelsea Nielsen using a steamer to prepare the dress made by Annie Jim for display

The oldest object is an early 20th century female doll carved out of wood, which signals its age since dolls are no longer made of wood. Also now on display is a male doll from the 1930s that unlike the female doll is made of palmetto fiber. They are both wearing traditional clothing, the female a cape and skirt and the male a turban and bigshirt, which remains a common feature among Seminole dolls. What notably distinguishes these two from contemporary dolls are their noses, which dolls today tend to lack.

Next to the older dolls is one made by Minnie Doctor and another by Mabel Osceola dating to the late 1990s. Minnie Doctor’s palmetto fiber doll is a mother with a baby on her back, while Mable Osceola’s palmetto fiber doll is a woman holding a pestle next to a mortar. She is posed as if ready to grind corn to make the traditional food sofkee. Both dolls are dressed in traditional capes, skirts, and beaded necklaces, so though the dolls are contemporary they celebrate longstanding practices.

Accompanying the dolls in the display case is a boy’s bigshirt and a girl’s dress. The bigshirt dating to the 1950s has many rows of applique, a decorative detail that grew in popularity during the 20th century. Its vibrant blue fabric stands out next to the red fabric of the dress Annie Jim made in 1990. Part of the dress is cotton like the bigshirt, but it is also made of synthetic metallic fiber. This metal-coated plastic is a modern material that distinguishes this dress from earlier clothing. A continuity between the bigshirt and dress is patchwork. Colorful bands of patchwork remain popular features on clothing though new designs have arisen.

Robin Croskery Howard placing the bigshirt on a mannequin and securing it will pins

The six objects on display in the “Creating Traditions” exhibit exemplify continuity in Seminole art but also show how styles have evolved. In six months, we will rotate the objects with ones that similarly celebrate past and present artisanship. We hope that the park’s millions of visitors will enjoy the beautiful pieces and be inspired to learn more about Seminole culture.


The Return of the Sash

By Robin Croskery Howard, Conservator

Back in autumn 2018, the Museum was fortunate enough to receive as a donation a sash that purportedly belonged to Osceola. It is believed to be one of the many articles of clothing that was taken from him during his imprisonment. Our Collections Manager, Tara Backhouse, has written several posts and articles that include the background of this object and how it made its way into our collection. For more background, check out the blog post “An Incredible Piece of History Comes Home” by Tara Backhouse from December 2018.

As the Museum’s conservator, I am tasked with taking care of all of the objects in a tangible way: through storage, monitoring and managing the environment, and also treatments which may be as simple as adding extra support in a box or as intricate and delicate as some surgeries. This sash came to the museum after having been stored in a brown paper bag for almost 100 years.

Paper, unless it undergoes a special process, is inherently acidic; the wool that is the primary fabric is also inherently acidic. Together, this overly acidic environment caused extreme brittleness of the actual fibers of the textile. It was so brittle, that when I started to carefully remove it from the bag, some of the long tassels were already broken off from the body of the sash. Therefore, it was really important that this sash undergo a special set of baths to try and neutralize the acidity and thus allow the fibers to relax back into place.

Anytime textiles are stored for a long period of time, the way in which it is folded (or in this case, crumpled) will create a memory in the fabric. It will continue to want to stay in that position, even after you have unfolded it; this is why clothes end up with lines on them if they stay folded for too long. So, to try and help get some of the folds out, I straightened out the piece as best I could, placed it under a large piece of acrylic, and put weights on top of it. The sash stayed like this until we could find a specialist to help treat this object.

After talking to other conservators, we were able to work with Howard Sutcliffe – a textile specialist – to treat this very delicate object earlier this year. It takes years of training to be able to become a conservator, and even longer to specialize in a single area of conservation. The treatment was straightforward, but not easy. Howard was able to bathe the textile, clean the beads, mend some of the tears, and stabilize the object overall to a point where it can be stored or displayed with relative ease.

Even though the Museum is closed to the public, the Collections staff worked with Howard to ensure the safe return of the sash late this spring. When it arrived back at the Museum, we were all thrilled with the amazing work Howard completed, and our ability to now safely store and exhibit this unique object. Please enjoy some of these in progress photos. I hope that once the Museum is able to re-open, that this object will get the fanfare it so richly deserves.

NMAI: A Landmark Institution Working for Indian Country

By Tara Backhouse, Museum Collections Manager

Right here in South Florida, the Ah-Tah-Thi Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Reservation works hard to share the Seminole story and to represent the Tribe’s interests in all our work.  We are able to work with many museums and other institutions in Florida, and we help them tell the Seminole story to all their visitors.  But did you know there’s another museum that strives to do that for all of Indian Country?  It’s the National Museum of the American Indian, commonly known as NMAI, and you may not know that there’s been a connection between the Seminole Tribe of Florida and that institution for over two decades.

The striking National Museum of the American Indian sits prominently among other Smithsonian Museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC (ATTK Catalog No. xxxx)

Although NMAI opened the doors of its newest Washington DC facility in 2004, it has a much longer history.  Its first facility in New York City became part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1989.  Coincidentally, this was also when the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum was chartered and began building its collection.  At the time the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki opened in 1997, we had an extensive working relationship with NMAI.  The Tribe consulted with their professionals about how to build the world-class facility we now have on Big Cypress.  And when it came time to build our permanent exhibits, NMAI loaned us pieces from their collection in order to help us tell the Seminole story.

Early 20th Century silver jewelry borrowed from NMAI is on display in our exhibit about traditional Seminole camp life.



A silversmith can be seen working with a silver above the display of an early 20th century silverworker’s kit, also on loan from NMAI’s collection.

When they opened in Washington, DC, many tribes were very excited.  People from the Seminole Tribe joined others at the opening ceremonies to lead a procession on the National Mall to show their support.  The Seminole Tribe had a strong presence that included the Seminole Color Guard and Tribal government officials.

Helene Buster and Michelle Thomas carried the banner that led the Seminole contingent of the procession celebrating NMAI’s opening in 2004.  The Seminole color guard follows closely behind.


Connie Whidden and Michelle Thomas smile in a colorful crowd during the 2004 opening.  The Washington Monument can be seen behind them.

If you go to NMAI, you might be surprised that the Seminole Tribe is only represented in a small way.  Remember that NMAI has the responsibility of advocating for all the indigenous people represented in their collection.  That’s a big job.  Come to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki for a total Seminole focus.  Go to NMAI to broaden your horizons and see the connections that spring to life when you do that.

One of the most important ways that NMAI fights for native rights is in the area of repatriation.  Museums had long collected the remains of Native people without permission from their Tribes and in violation of their cultural traditions for caring for those who have passed on. Native peoples wanted and are still fighting for all Museums to return the remains of their people. Responding to outrage over the state of national repatriation efforts, the National Museum of the American Indian Act was enacted in 1989.  Under this law, the National Museum of the American Indian was established along with protocols for repatriating ancestors who had been wrongfully taken.  NMAI has led repatriation efforts within the Smithsonian Institution and has returned over 5000 ancestors to their homes, getting them out of the hands of the non-native institutions that have allowed research and other culturally insensitive treatment of those remains for many years.

But repatriation is a work in progress and many Seminole ancestors have still not been returned home.  NMAI does a great job with repatriation, but all the museums within the Smithsonian Institution are managed differently.  This is why the Seminole Tribe’s Museum and Tribal Historic Preservation Office have initiated the #NoMoreStolenAncestors campaign.  Join us in our fight to advocate for the return of Seminole ancestors at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  Our work and your voice will not only help to address historic and current offenses to the Seminole Tribe but also those committed against our fellow tribes across Indian country.  Thank you for your support!

Museum Photographs Show us the Past to Help us Think about the Present and Look to the Future

By Tara Backhouse, Collections Manager

Happy Holidays to you and your families, from the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.  Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year are times for celebration, but also for recollection and thought.  We remember times gone by and we wonder what is to come.  These days we all have our own interests and activities, but it’s rewarding to come together and find a common ground at family gatherings.  While you enjoy the company of your family and all of the entertainment that the modern holidays offer, take a moment to think about the Seminole Tribe’s journey for the last 100 years.  This selection of the Museum’s historic photographs was chosen to show how amazing that journey has been.   The pictures show scenes from the early, middle and late 20th century.  These decades saw the journey from humble camp lives in rustic settings to hard work and economic success in the modern world. When we see how much things have changed during this time, we can only imagine what changes the future will bring. 

Figure 1

At a scenic camp in the Everglades in the 1930s or 40s, two men are taking a canoe out on a journey.  Others watch them leave.  Notice this camp has several canoes of different sizes.  Canoes were shared by the residents, and different sizes were needed for different kinds of trips. Times may have been tough, but living in a traditional way was fulfilling and rewarding. (ATTK Catalog No. 2001.34.8)

Figure 2

Mrs. Corey Osceola poses for a picture with her two children, at a chickee in 1942.  See how many things are in and around the chickee?  Mrs. Osceola had to have everything she needed for her family in that one place.  Not only that, but they probably stored many things in the rafters so that they could have a clear floor to sleep on at night.  Imagine if we had to do that today, and how many possessions we’d have to move. (ATTK Catalog No. 2005.27.39)

Figure 3

In the 1950’s education was a big priority.  The world was changing and government schools helped people learn new things. Annie Tiger, Joyce Osceola, Sadie Fewell, Addie Tommie, Betty Mae Osceola and Johnson Billie study hard in this adult education night class on the Big Cypress Reservation in 1957.  Education helped people start businesses and form a government. (ATTK Catalog No. 2009.34.508)

Figure 4

In 1957 members of the brand new Tribal Council and Board posed proudly for this picture.  Included are: Billy Osceola, Chairman of Council, Bill Osceola, President of the Board of Directors, Willie Frank, Toby Johns, Robert Osceola and Dan Osceola.  This was a proud moment born of hard work and a warrior spirit.  People like this didn’t let the U.S. government terminate the Tribe’s sovereign status.  They persevered and started a brand new type of government, which is now over 60 years old. (ATTK Catalog No. 2009.34.463)

Figure 5

Henry Nelson wrestles and alligator at Okalee Indian Village in 1960.  Talented wrestlers learned this skill to show it off to visiting tourists.  The mid 20th century tourism enterprises of the Tribe showed that the Tribe had the diverse ingenuity needed to succeed financially.  Ventures like Okalee led to the acquisition of Hard Rock International. (ATTK Catalog No. 2009.34.884)

Figure 6

Betty Mae Jumper was elected the first female Chairman of the Tribe in 1967.  The U.S. Government has yet to catch up with the Tribe, since no female president has been elected, even in 2019!  Betty Mae Jumper and Billy L. Cypress were both powerful advocates for Education.  In this photograph, Billy honors Betty Mae by interviewing her on a cable television show produced by the Museum in 1993. (ATTK Catalog No. GRP1828.10)

Figure 7

A young girl helps out her friend at this important Ahfachkee graduation in 2001.  The Seminole colors on their gowns symbolize the cultural pride that runs through everything that Seminole people do today.  The Tribe’s continued support of education is palpable at an event like this. (ATTK Catalog No. 2016.14.363)

Figure 8

When the Tribe broke ground for the Hollywood Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in 2001 using gold shovels, who would have thought that 18 years later they would still be masters of the brand, and that they would be opening the world’s first guitar-shaped hotel on the same spot! (ATTK Catalog No. 2016.14.101)

Figure 9

Today the vibrant colors of the Tribe can be seen at public events like this Hollywood Tribal Fair in 2001.  Seminole royalty advances during the grand procession.  Pictured are Joe Dan Osceola, Ambassador; Desiree Jumper, Miss Seminole; and Jo Jo Osceola, Junior Miss Seminole.  This is a great place to see Seminole artists shine as you watch the clothing contests.  Tribal Fair has been held for many decades, and is sure to keep traditions alive in years to come. (ATTK Catalog No. 2016.14.185)

The variety of modern Seminole life is tremendous.  These pictures merely scratch the surface.  If you want to get lost in this subject, stop by the Museum to browse our photos in the library.  If you like to sure the Internet instead, check out our Online Collections here:

It is our mission at the Museum to chronicle the Tribe’s journey and to make sure everyone knows this tremendous story.  Come and help us if that is your mission too!

Boxes and Crates: Housing the Collection

By Robin Croskery Howard, Conservator

Have you ever wondered about the objects in a museum collection when they aren’t on display? How are they cared for and stored? What happens when oversize objects don’t fit in a banker’s box? As the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s Conservator, part of my job in caring for the collection is to provide adequate archival housing for objects that will protect them against certain basic agents of deterioration; in short, I make boxes with special inserts that protect our artifacts from too much light, dust, dirt, changes in the atmosphere, and vibrations. It takes time and creativity to figure out the best way to protect objects and still have the housing fit on the vault shelves. Sometimes the objects are too big and/or too heavy for me to make the right housing. When this happens, our Collections Division relies on outside companies to create custom wooden crates that will protect our objects in the same manner.

The Museum’s collection boasts ten large dugout canoes, which are mostly housed on chocks in the Curatorial Building and can be seen on our behind-the-scenes tours. These canoes were too big and heavy to place into the large vault in the building; they wouldn’t even make it around the corners in the hallway! Therefore, the canoes were moved into the hallway and placed onto heavy duty wooden and steel framed shelves. To prevent dust from accumulating on the interior of the canoes, they are draped in soft perforated Tyvek (textile-like DuPont material that is chemically inert). However, this material only partially protects them from too much light, dust, and dirt accumulation. And, the shelving is located at an access point for the building’s HV/AC system. Over the past year this has proved to be problematic.

In the next couple of years, the HV/AC system in the Curatorial Building will be overhauled to better meet the strict demands to properly store and care for our precious objects. To do that, the technicians will need to work in the same area as the canoes. Since they can’t be easily moved out of the way, the canoes need to receive protective housing. So, our division worked with an outside vendor to create custom wooden crates for three of the large canoes this year.

Exact measurements of the canoes were taken and sent off to the vendor. From there, the custom crates were built with a soft foam interior to protect and surround the object. On the day to crate the objects, four specially trained personnel from the vendor arrived to move the objects from the shelves and into the crates assisted by Museum staff. Last minute adjustments to the interior were made onsite as needed. By the end of the day, three canoes were safely stored in new crates.

These three canoes are now better protected against the agents of deterioration and anyone who has to work in the vicinity. This is a large and expensive project that we are undertaking in small chunks. Hopefully, all of the canoes will have this protective crating by the end of 2021, so that we can continue with the HV/AC project.

Initial Movement
Two of the art handlers lift the canoe from the rack to place inside of the crate

Covering Canoe
The canoe is covered with a Tyvek slip cover inside of the crate

Stays in place
Stays with Ethafoam bumpers are screwed into place to prevent further movement inside of the crate

The lid for the crate is placed on top and secured with screws