To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne Community Center: A Place to Gather

By Justin Giles, Oral History Coordinator

As we spring forward on the Big Cypress Reservation, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum continues to grow with the seasons, as well.  Our Museum staff has participated in a flurry of Tribal events and festivals this season with the goal of being an active part of the community.  While our staff takes care of their day-to-day duties on the Museum grounds, we also have the mission of engaging directly with the Seminole community in a proactive way.  Participating in events like the annual Tribal Fair, Seminole Shootout, and the Swamp Cabbage festival is a great way to conduct outreach with our constituency.  Plus, there always tends to be great food to enjoy, as well!

In the spirit of being active community members, the museum is embarking on another initiative to bring our programs and services to the Seminole people.   We have renovated a former Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building located on the Big Cypress Reservation that until recently operated as the local pool hall.  In the coming months we will open the To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne Community Center as an extension of the Museum itself.  To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne translates to “a place to gather” or “a gathering place” and has been deemed an appropriate name for this newly renovated facility.

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Specifically, the new community center will have a central focus on the oral history program and serve as a space where Tribal Members can feel welcome and comfortable to share and record their histories.  We want to be sure that the building has a feel of a relative’s living room where conversation and a natural sharing of stories can happen without having to maneuver and find space on the main Museum campus.  We will also have space to showcase our library’s large collection of photographs featuring Tribal Members as far back as the 1920’s from the various reservations.

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The building is large enough to accommodate several of our traveling exhibit pop up banners that present Seminole life and history.  Additionally, we have kept the gaming aspect of the building providing pin ball machines, foosball, and two pool tables open to the Seminole community.

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Lastly, the To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne Community Center will serve as an additional space on the reservation for birthday parties, cook outs, Tribal community and Council meetings,  Museum staff meetings, and will be made available whenever the need to gather arises.  The center will also serve as a place to post Tribal and tourist announcements for events, programs, and other happenings.  As we finish the last touch ups to the building, please be on the look out for firm opening dates and events.  We are excited for this opportunity to extend our Museum directly to the Seminole community and to have more open doors to share the Museum with visitors.  The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki is proud to serve the Seminole people and provide an educational center to the world at large eager to learn about Seminole and Florida history.

Sho-Na-Besh-Sha/Mvto!

(Thank you)!

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Drum Circles and Their Place in Seminole History

By Tara Backhouse, Museum Collections Manager

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s mission is simple but broad: to celebrate, preserve, and interpret Seminole Culture and History.  It’s a beautiful mission and it’s a privilege to be able to dedicate so much of my life to its sentiments.  To be able to do it right, and I hope that we are, takes a lot of thought, analysis and action.  It’s not a simple thing, because culture and history are complex and all-encompassing.  Our focus in history covers a relatively small part of the world (the southeastern United States) and a very small part of the time that history has been happening, generally the last few hundred years.  However, the Seminole slice of history is still vast, rich and multifaceted.  We cannot tell the Seminole story quickly or easily.  It cannot be done in one exhibit, one blog, one tour, or through one historic object!  As the Collections Manager, that is my main concern:  the historic objects.  Additional devoted team members head up those other aspects, but we all work together to make sure we do our best with the same mission.

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Unpuzzling the Past

If you’re familiar with Seminole history, there are a lot of things you may recognize immediately as essential to our mission: a piece of patchwork, a doll or basket, and perhaps a historic photograph or postcard.

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We’re happy when we uncover a piece of Seminole history and culture that we haven’t talked about in a public forum. It’s not always obvious if an object that’s offered to us is relevant to Seminole history, and we have to scratch our heads and think outside the box at times like this.  This is what happened in 2017 when we were contacted by a Mr. Sigfried R. Second-Jumper, aka Siggy Jumper. Mr. Jumper told us he had a drum made by Thomas Storm Sr., and that it would be a great addition to our Museum.

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We recognized this object immediately as the type of drum used in western Native American drum circles. But a Seminole drum circle?  We’d never heard of that.  With Mr. Jumper’s help we learned that Cypress Prairie, the drum circle he participated in from 1998-2001, was a collaboration between Seminole and other native people, and that helped us to understand that it was indeed an important part of the Seminole story.

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Cypress Prairie members worked with local schools to teach drumming and share the joy they got from the music.

Totem Poles

The Seminole Tribe of Florida has welcomed the traditions of other tribes for at least 100 years. Around the turn of the 19th century, Seminole people became involved in tourist attractions that featured their own cultural traditions packaged in a way that tourists would appreciate and pay for.  In turn, people working in those camps were exposed to totem poles and other forms of art that weren’t traditionally Seminole.  So, they adapted and took on some of those traditions.

Some people say that things like totem poles need to be thought of differently, that they are not Seminole, because they originated on the west coast of North America. But in my opinion, that’s a very narrow viewpoint.  History doesn’t stop, and culture changes constantly.  And why should Seminole artists have been exclusionary in the early 20th century, when they saw totem poles and admired them?  After all, new skills helped Seminole people make money.  Anything that helped Seminole people gain economic independence after a devastating century needs to be appreciated.  For these reasons, we have totem poles in our collection.

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Collections Officer Robin Kilgo and Conservator Corey Smith prepare a totem pole for storage in 2012.

Showcasing Talent and Traditions

Tribal Fairs and Pow Wows are other venues through which Seminole people have long celebrated native talent from far and wide. Whether it is fancy dancers from the Great Plains or fire dancers from Mexico, all these performance traditions show the pride and resilience of native peoples who were disrespected, persecuted, subjugated, massacred and driven out of their homelands over a 300-hundred-year period.   So, it seems natural to me that native people would want to share the beauty that survived with each other, and that people from one tribe would learn the dances and music of another tribe.

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Drum circles have also been a feature at Seminole events for many decades. Some of the pictures in our historic collection illustrate the healing power of musical traditions like this.

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You can find pictures of the dances at Tribal Fairs and well as thousands of other pieces of Seminole history, by searching our online collections: https://semtribe.pastperfectonline.com/

If you need assistance, give us a call at 863-902-1113 and ask for the Collections Division.

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If you can, come see us at the Museum on Big Cypress! Objects from the Siggy R. Second-Jumper collection are on display until April 4th, 2019.  In the Selections from the Collections gallery you can read about his extraordinary story and you can be inspired by the beautiful music that Cypress Prairie created.  We will continue to collect stories like his that show the wealth and variety of Seminole life, so that we can do the best job possible to celebrate, preserve, and interpret Seminole Culture and History.  We need your help to make it happen.  Please contact us if you’re interested in helping tell the Tribe’s story!

An Incredible Piece of History Comes Home

By Tara Backhouse, Museum Collections Manager

One seemingly ordinary day in mid-September, I sat down to check my email as I do every morning, expecting not to find anything out of the ordinary.  Imagine my surprise when I got a wonderful email from a couple who were in possession of a 19th century beaded sash with an amazing story.

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The blue and green fingerwoven belt dates to the early 19th century and is extremely fragile.

It was in an old brown envelope that read: “J. Bryan Grimes, Secretary of State, Raleigh, N.C.”.  Handwritten upon the envelope was “Osceola’s Sash.”

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This early 20th century paper envelope held the belt for many years, but is not as old as the belt itself.

A separate typed tag attached to the belt:

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The attached tag appears to be contemporary with the envelope, so it is not as old as the sash itself either.

The end of the email expressed kind and gracious sentiments:

We would like to return this precious artifact to its rightful owner, the Seminole Tribe of Florida. We feel it should be displayed for all to admire. May it help bring the reality of Osceola’s life and accomplishments as a war hero and First Nations chief into the forefront of public awareness.

Not Everything is as it Appears

As the Collections Manager for the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, part of my job is to acquire historic objects for the museum collection.  I’ve been involved in this process for over 10 years, so I’ve seen quite a few offers presented to the Tribe.  Some have been great pieces of Seminole history that we’re proud to accept, and many have come at little or no cost to the Tribe.  But there have also been many disappointments:  Art and artifacts that aren’t what they were advertised to be; priceless pieces that come with too high of a price; and people who aren’t what they claim to be!  When someone offers to donate something valuable to the Museum, they often change their tune during the process, and we end up not being able to seal the deal.  Not only that, but a historical claim like the one on the tag is very hard to prove.  Osceola is a great Seminole War hero, and many people claim they have something that belonged to him.  Only a fraction of these things turn out to be real possibilities.   So, I had all that in the back of my mind when I started to converse with Joseph and Laralyn Riverwind, as well as Melba Checote-Eads, who sent me the email.  Imagine how thrilled I was to learn that the Riverwinds are kind and honest people, who would never mislead the Seminole Tribe or anyone else.  They had been themselves surprised to be given the sash by an acquaintance who had purchased the belt during an estate sale.  They were entrusted to do the right thing, and to make sure the belt got the appreciation and care that it deserved.

Research Underway

While waiting for the donation to arrive, the staff at the Museum set about researching the information on the tag, and the style and colors of the belt, in order to tie it to Osceola’s history.  We found out that Francis T. Bryan was a soldier under Zachary Taylor, and that J. Bryan Grimes Jr. was the Secretary of State of North Carolina for the first couple decades of the 20th century.  So, it was a good first step to verify the history of those men.  We also researched the objects that are known to have belonged to Osceola, when he was captured under a white flag of truce near St. Augustine, FL in October 1837, and then when he was imprisoned by the U.S. Army later that year in South Carolina at Fort Moultrie.  While in prison, Osceola sat for three artists.  They painted and drew several portraits, and that’s why we have a realistic idea of what he looked like and what he wore at that time.  In this 1838 George Catlin painting of the warrior, the tassels of a dark green or blue belt are visible around his waist.  The belt in this painting bears a striking resemblance to the belt that was gifted.

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George Catlin’s 1838 Portrait of Osceola, painted just before Osceola’s death.  The belt he is wearing looks very similar to the donated belt.

Osceola owned a range of clothing and accessories when he was imprisoned.  Sadly, he passed away in 1838, shortly after he met with the artists.  However, other scholars have done a lot to research his possessions that were documented at that time.  As the most knowledgeable researcher says on this subject, “the subject of the belts, sashes, pouches, and garters which may have belonged to Osceola is a very confusing one.” (Wickman 1991:176)  In “Osceola’s Legacy,” Pat Wickman reports that five belts of Osceola were mentioned in written works or appear in his portraits.  Wickman was only able to find the history of three of those belts, and of those three, only one is currently verified to exist.  (As it happens, that particular beaded and finger woven belt is already part of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki’s collection).

The Belt Arrives at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum

We were finally able to see the belt in person when the donors brought it to Big Cypress and unveiled in in front of Council and Board representatives, interested community members, and Museum and Tribal Historic Preservation Office staff.  We were all stunned and left speechless by what we saw.

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An excited and overwhelmed audience views the sash for the first time together.  (Front with backs to the camera, from left to right, are Lewis Gopher, Councilman Manuel Tiger, and Delores Alvarez.  In the back, l to r, Allice Billie, Patricia Osceola, Laralyn Riverwind, Joseph Riverwind and Robin Croskery Howard).

The belt is olive and dark brown in color, and is tightly woven in a diamond pattern.  Its tassels are covered with extremely small white seed beads.  The belt is undeniably old, and is very fragile.   There was no doubt that the belt carries with it much history and power.  Our leaders, advisors, and visitors all spoke about the deep emotions that came with this donation.  Humility, gratefulness, poignancy and happiness were shared by all.  We noted with amazement that next week will be the 180th anniversary of Osceola’s capture.  What a fitting time to welcome his belt home!

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(l to r) Big Cypress Board Member Joe Frank, and Tribal Historic Preservation Office staff members Juan Cancel and Domonique DeBeaubien watch as Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Conservator Robin Croskery Howard examines the fragile beaded tassels attached to the main body of the belt.

At the viewing, we displayed a copy of Catlin’s painting.  We shared our thoughts and research.  Historical research is not an exact science.  We’ll continue to research this belt and its story, and hopefully we’ll find more evidence to connect it with Osceola.  We’re happy to say at this time that the belt appears to date to the early 1800’s.   It looks likely that Osceola owned a belt of this style and color.  We at the Museum vow to take steps to preserve this priceless object and to make it accessible to our community.  Please contact us if you would like to see it.  We only ask for your patience with our preservation process.  We are here to bring Seminole history to you and future generations, and we’d love to explain how we do that in person.

Thank you!

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Donors and STOF representatives pose to commemorate the gift (l to r; Councilman Manuel Tiger, Joseph Riverwind, Laralyn Riverwind, Board Member Joe Frank, Lewis Gopher, and Melba Checote-Eads)

Citation:

1991  Wickman, Patricia R.  Osceola’s Legacy.  The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa

Seminole Big Cypress Reservation: Culture, Kool-Aid & Gators!

by Justin Giles, Oral History Coordinator

The Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Big Cypress Reservation is a well-established tourist destination located in the Florida Everglades. Each day I witness the reservation’s popularity as I say hello and welcome visitors to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.  Travelers from across the globe to the local Floridians like students and tourists make their way to the Big Cypress Reservation to have a good time and experience a little slice of Seminole life.

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Summer Work Experience Program participants pose with a “pointing man” sign on the Museum’s boardwalk

Big Cypress enjoys warm weather year-round. Visitors have a good time here as they visit Billie Swamp Safari and eat nuggets made from gator tail after a day of touring the Florida Everglades in a swamp buggy or airboat.  Guests join in the fun at numerous events like the upcoming American Indian Arts Celebration on November 2-3 while visiting the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. Guests are reminded as they sip their Kool-Aid at Sweet Tooth Café or sample fry bread at the Swamp Water Café that the Big Cypress is also home to many Seminole people. The Seminole Tribe has a proud history and culture that was once purposefully closed off the rest of the world by the Seminole people themselves.

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 Justin with Big Cypress artist Paul Bowers

As the Oral History Coordinator, I have the privilege of understanding Seminole history and culture with a bit more insight than the average visitors that make their way to the Florida Everglades and Big Cypress. After all, one of the main facets of my job is to interview Tribal community members about their life growing up Seminole and to record oral histories passed down from generation to generation.

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Justin with Carol Cypress at the Big Cypress Senior Center

These interviews are either audio or video recordings which are then accessioned and archived into the Museum’s oral history collection.  Some of these recordings may be restricted and are only to be viewed or heard by Seminole tribal members, while others are available for researches or used as supplemental material for museum exhibits. The mission of the Oral History Program is to preserve historical and contemporary Seminole life for the future generations of Seminole people.

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Justin (far left) and Cherrah Giles (far right) with Tina Osceola and family, and Sonya Cypress and family, at an exhibit about Seminole patchwork

Many of the oral histories that Seminole community members share with our program talk about a time of survival when fighting against encroachment on their ancestral lands from Spain and the United States. The Seminole historical figures from the Seminole War such as Osceola, Abiaka, and Micanopy are indeed legendary.

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Osceola, a painting by Robert John Curtis

These great leaders fought hard to maintain and preserve their Seminole way of life and hold on to the land of their ancestors.  Many other oral histories chronicle happier times like the stomp dances, birthdays, social gatherings and everyday contemporary life. After all, the Florida Everglades and Big Cypress Reservation are home to these stories and to a thriving Seminole culture.

There is certainly a lot to experience and learn while visiting the Seminole Big Cypress Reservation. Additionally, you can also visit other Seminole Reservations in Hollywood, Brighton, Immokalee, Ft. Pierce and Tampa. Just keep an eye out for the bears, panthers, and gators and remind yourself that you are visiting the home of the great Seminole!

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Many alligators, even cute baby ones, live on Big Cypress

 

 

 

Fashion, Beauty, and the Challenge of Identification: A Seminole Tribune Story

 

By Tara Backhouse, Collections Manager

 

Here at the Museum we’ve partnered with the Seminole Tribune, the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s own newspaper, to care for thousands of photographs that their hardworking reporters took for the Tribe for over 30 years.  From STOF events and community milestones, to personal vacations and news from Indian Country, these reporters really went to the ends of the earth in order to document decades of happenings.  You can imagine that is a lot of photos.  We estimate there are around 30,000!  Since they were transferred to the Museum in 2015 we’ve been working hard to get them cataloged and into our database, so that we can keep track of them and preserve them for the future.  I’m happy to report that we are almost halfway there, with over 15,000 cataloged into our database!  This is impressive if you consider that these are not the only objects we’re cataloging.  Seminole history doesn’t stop, and neither do we!  Come see us if you want to learn how and why we take care of the things we take care of.  It is definitely an eye-opener for most people.

 

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A screenshot from our collections management database: this is what a well identified photograph looks like in our system

These days, photographs are digital, and the newspaper has no need for our services with their current work. However, we are happy to help care for the pictures they took in the past, because they are a treasure trove of information about recent Tribal life and activities.  It’s our mission to help preserve those things, and it’s also our mission to bring this history back to anyone in the community who wants it.  One of the ways we do this is by providing copies of photographs in our collection to community members who want pictures of themselves or families.  In order to do this, we need to gather identifications, because not all of the photos come with any identifying information.  Getting photographs identified is harder than it sounds, and that’s because of the number of photographs we’re working with, and the fact that we have to preserve them once they are cataloged, and they can’t be traveled around and handled by lots of people.

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By storing photographs and documents in acid-free containers, out of direct light, and in conditions of stable temperature and humidity, we can ensure these objects last for generations

 

We can overcome the latter problem by showing people copies or digital versions of the photographs at a community event, for example, but it’s still an issue of scale. We can’t spread out 30,000 photographs on a table, so we have to choose a selection to take with us.

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This is just some of the 30,000 photographs we took custody of in 2015 and we had quite an organizational job ahead of us before cataloging could take place

And choosing the best selection of photographs is difficult. The people we run into may not know anything about the selection we have chosen to share at that time, but they might be very familiar with a selection of photographs that is waiting back at the Museum.  That is why the online collections section of our website comes in handy.  Here, people can search for names, places and events in order to find photographs they are interested in:

http://semtribe.pastperfectonline.com/

OnlineCollections

 

Other ways we can share smaller subsets of pictures are through the Seminole Tribune itself, and through the Museum’s blog! (Hint: that’s what I’m doing now)

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Recently I came across just one such subset. Last month I cataloged a bunch of similar portrait-style close-up photographs of well-dressed people.

 

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People are often wearing patchwork or other types of traditional Seminole clothing and posing thoughtfully for the pictures.

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 Traditional clothing is a popular category at STOF clothing contests, and in this portrait Jimmy O’Toole Osceola wears an early 20th century style bigshirt and turban combination (ATTK Catalog No. 2015.6.13240)

 

Maybe they were doing this because they were all ready to participate in a clothing contest, such as the ones held every year Tribal Fair.  People spend a lot of time making clothing for these contests and then get together to show them off and compete in categories. Indeed, some of the photographs are labeled with the initials “TF96” on the back, and we know that refers to the Tribal Fair celebration in 1996.

 

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This portrait of an unidentified man wearing a patchwork jacket and cowboy hat was taken at the Seminole Tribe of Florida Tribal Fair celebration in 1996 (ATTK Catalog No. 2015.6.14286)

But we’re not sure that all these photographs were taken at a Tribal Fair event. Clothing contests also take place at other times and on other reservations.  And some may not have been taking during contests at all.

 

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Rita Gopher takes part in a clothing contest in Immokalee in 1999 (ATTK Catalog Numbers 2015.6.14274 and .14275

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As the Museum and THPO’s first executive director, Billy L. Cypress often showed off traditional garb like this, so this photograph could have been taken at any number of events (ATTK Catalog No. 2015.6.13280)

 

We wonder how often the newspaper was in the habit of taking such stunning pictures of so many photogenic folks? Was it only for a couple of years?  Could it be for at any event or any location? Do you know any of the people that we haven’t identified in this blog?  Any information we can gather helps us preserve and share the past.

These are nice portraits, and we imagine that if you were the subject of one, you probably didn’t get a copy at the time.  It wasn’t that easy 15 or 20 years ago, when film had to be commercially developed and printed.  These days we can make digital copies quickly and we’d be happy to do that for you.  Maybe you’re looking for a nice photo of a family member?  Or maybe you just want to see what the Seminole Tribune reporters were up to from the 1980’s to the early 2000’s.  The easiest way to see our photographs is to browse over 11,000 through the online collections on our website.  Try this shortened link to bring up just the Seminole Tribune photograph collection:

 

https://tinyurl.com/y86latru

 

But if you’re in the area, you can also come to the Museum library to see the photographs.  We’re happy to help and it’s easier if you make an appointment.  Just call 863-902-1113 and ask for the Library.   See you soon!