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


Snake Road Construction!

Tara Backhouse, Registrar

That title probably doesn’t sound like something exciting that needs an exclamation point after it.  It probably doesn’t sound like something that the museum would be interested in either.  But allow me to explain.  Snake Road is the name of the section of County Road 833 that starts at Exit 49 on Alligator Alley, and ends at Big Cypress Reservation.  The name was coined because of the snake-like shape the road has as it winds its way through the 15 miles between the highway and the Reservation.

Snake Road

Probably due to its shape and scenic opportunities (alligators and other wildlife abound), this road has a rather high accident rate, and is currently undergoing a widening project in order to make it safer.  The road is historically significant because, prior to its construction, the only way to access Big Cypress reservation was by dirt track or canoe.  The original construction of the road took place over many years from the 1940’s to the 1960’s.  Therefore a significant portion of the road is antique, that is, over 50 years old. 

That is where the museum comes in.  We know that history is always being created.  Everything that is current now, will be history to the people who come after us.  As the old bridge that leads into the Big Cypress Community was being destroyed, we thought it was a unique opportunity to capture a piece of history.  We took it upon ourselves to ask the construction company if we could visit the site and perhaps remove a piece of the demolished bridge.

Bridge Demolition

We got some exciting demolition pictures, and also our very own piece of the bridge.  I chose it for its distinctive rebar markings.  That’s not that interesting, but hey, it’s concrete!

Piece of the bridge

This item will be incorporated into what we call our Tribal Memorabilia Collection.  This collection is continually growing because the Museum often acquires objects from Tribal events, such as souvenirs and event schedules, as well as things that are produced by the Seminole Tribe, such as newspapers and TV programs.  As you can imagine, this means we get some rather unique items, such as this towel that commemorated a councilman’s birthday in 2008.

The Tribal Memorabilia Collection therefore consists of modern objects that don’t always seem important.  It is hard to imagine that today’s common items will have a greater significance in the future because of their rarity, and because of the historic time period they represent.  So look around, and imagine that all the common things you see may someday have a place in a museum.  That’s one of the ways we look at Seminole culture, and that’s why we care about Snake Road construction!

A Day in the Life of a Museum Intern….

I’m Stephanie Carter and here at the museum, I spend my time in the conservation lab with conservator, Corey Smith.  I’m going to give you a sneak peak into the work I do for the museum, and tell you what prompts  me to keep making a 2.5 hour drive each way to be at the museum  at least twice per month (or more, depending on if it’s exhibit time)!

So why would someone drive 280 miles in a day to work in a lab? Well in my case, it all comes down to my passion for material culture, as well as my career interests in museum work, preservation, and conservation.  I’m currently a student in the Johns Hopkins University Masters of Museum Studies program, and can happily report I am halfway through my degree and getting more excited every day at the future that lies before me. 

As much as I love the path I’m on, I’ve never been able to completely distance myself from my innate love of historic objects and the intense feeling of purpose I feel while working hands-on with them.  Through a Florida Association of Museum’s course held at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki, I was introduced to Corey and her conservation lab.  It was love at first sight!  Being able to treat, conserve, learn from and give appropriate attention to objects sounded like paradise to me!  Once my current degree is completed, I’m interested in going into conservation studies.  Many of the schools that carry a conservation degree (and there are only 4 in the United States), require internship hours with a trained conservator prior to applying.  The intention of going on to conservation graduate school is one of the requirements to work as an intern in the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Conservation lab.  In addition to the conservation internship hours, I’ll need additional classes in chemistry, organic chemistry, art history, studio art, and fluency in a foreign language, just to be a likely candidate for the graduate programs!  Conservation labs are hard to come by (especially in Florida), so when I applied to be the intern at the museum and was accepted, I was very grateful and honored that Corey would give me the opportunity to follow this passion.

So, enough on my background.   What everyone really wants to know is what I do when I work at the museum, right?  For the last few months, I’ve been working with Corey on readying military items for exhibition in the upcoming Tools of War show.  My job has primarily been to work on 18th and 19th century muskets, rifles, and pistols that will be on display.  On a typical day in the lab, I start the conservation process by doing a thorough historical search of the particular gun I’m working on.  Some items in the museum’s collection have little to no documentation or historical background, so it’s my job to find out as much as I can about the item.  With the help of the Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms and other weaponry books from the museum’s library, I’ve been able to fill in many gaps of information including approximate year of manufacture, materials, caliber, and many other pertinent historical facts.  Of course, the internet is always another useful tool for information!  After the research, I make a detailed report of my findings to be added later to the museum’s cataloguing software.  I then examine the weapon for cracks, corrosion, insect holes, discoloration, or any other problems, and compose a detailed condition report from my discoveries.  Archival digital photographs are taken of guns to visually document their current condition.  Lastly, with Corey’s assistance, I compose a treatment proposal and submit it for authorization.  Once the proposal is authorized, the REAL fun begins!

After the treatment has been authorized and with Corey’s guidance, I then can begin the treatment process.  With the guns I’ve worked on thus far, the attention they’ve needed has included: vacuuming them with a HEPA filtered vacuum, cleaning corrosive areas of metal on the gun gently with cotton swabs and ethanol, coating the metal with a microcrystalline wax, and then buffing the metal  to a shiny finish with a cotton cloth.  Some of the guns have also had foreign powders, adhesives, accretions, or other vestiges of residue on them that require careful removal.  Part of the conservation process is the removal of these potentially harmful substances that could induce further damage to these already fragile objects.  Depending on the substance, other tools such a wooden skewer, adhesive remover, stiff boar brush, or a scalpel may be utilized for the removal.  After the treatment is completed, I write up a report detailing the work I performed.  The gun is now ready to be installed into the new exhibit!

Make sure to come out to view the new exhibit, Tools of War, beginning in March, and see what the wonderful employees of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki (including myself) have been working on!  For more information on conservation work at the museum, visit  For more information about the field of conservation and other projects happening around the globe, visit the American Institute for Conservation at

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. 

Testing for Safety: Heavy Metals and Pesticides in Museum Collections

Are there hidden dangers in your museum collection?  When it comes to health and safety sometimes you can’t even see the most dangerous elements.  Did you know that from the 1700’s to the 1970’s heavy metals, such as arsenic and mercury, were used in museums as active pesticides to protect their artifacts, especially those made from organic materials?  Organic materials are those which were originally living such as textiles, baskets, leather, and other materials very commonly found in Native American collections.   As we always say, every material on earth will eventually return to dust, but organic materials are much more susceptible to this deterioration and are therefore in greater need of protection from environmental factors especially insect damage.

Cheryl Podsiki testing beads on a bandolier bag

                The practice of treating collections with heavy metal pesticides was extremely common in the United States, Canada and Europe.  Arsenic (in many forms such as arsenic trichloride, orthoarsenic acid, potassium arsenate) and mercuric chloride could be applied in many manners.  It could be used as a powder, as a soap, or as a solution.  It could be rubbed, brushed, sprayed or sprinkled on.  This practice was extremely successful.  Bugs and pests stayed clear of artifacts that had been treated with this type of material.  These pesticides remnants on artifacts today remain potent and extremely hazardous to all bugs, pests, and not surprisingly to museum employees and community members who have contact with the artifacts.  As a rule of thumb, I consider any ethnographic or Native American artifact older than 100 years that is in extremely good condition with very little pest damage highly suspicious for dangerous pesticide content.

XRF computer display with turtle shell mask

                How can you detect pesticide residues on your collection?  I carefully examine any older artifact that I find in suspiciously good condition.  Loose white powders found on the surface of the artifact or in the storage materials can raise red flags.  At the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum we were lucky enough to have Cheryl  Podsiki, a Conservator  from New York State who specializes in Contaminated Objects, come to test 29 of our objects as a short survey into the pesticide presence at the museum.  Cheryl works with a hand held X-ray fluorescence (XRF) Elemental analyzer called a Tracer III-V made by Bruker-AXS .  The XRF machine uses a completely non-invasive and non-destructive technique that bounces x-rays off of the surface of an artifact in order to identify the organic elemental content of the surface of the artifact.  Twenty eight of the artifacts chosen for the sample testing were selected from the Speck Collection, while the last one was a bandolier bag that is going into an upcoming exhibition at the museum.  Frank G. Speck, who was the originally collector of these objects was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.  It is known that the UPenn Museum used arsenic as a pesticide during the years at the beginning of the 20th century when the Speck Collection was stored in their facility.  Only one of the twenty nine artifacts selected for this study clearly had arsenic applied as a pesticide.  The feathers on this blow dart are in extremely good condition without any insect damage present, so the visual evaluation corresponds to the scientific results.

                My favorite moment during the testing with Cheryl was when we examined our lab mascot, Vlad the Bear.  Vlad is a stuffed Maine bear that lives in the conservation lab.  Since he is from the state of Maine, he does not fall under the mission of our museum and is not an accessioned artifact.  We keep him in front of the observation hallway window to entertain the school children that come through the hallway.  Taxidermy animals are also very likely to contain heavy metal pesticides.  In fact, these pesticides were used inside the stuffing of the animals as late as the 1970s, so be careful with those stuffed dear heads in your dens!  For the most part Vlad tested negative for heavy metals, but one small spot on his paw where the skin is very thin tested faintly positive for mercury.  It is likely that there is mercury inside his stuffing, but as long as he stays in good condition with proper handling he is safe to stay in the lab.

XRF testing of Vlad the bear.

                What can you so about pesticide content within your collection?  Sadly, the answer is very little.  There are no common treatments for the removal of pesticides from museum artifacts, although conservation scientists across the world are currently researching methods.  At this point we vacuum the surface of pesticide containing artifacts with a HEPA filter vacuum to remove any loose powders, seal the artifact in a bag to prevent cross contamination between artifacts, and clearly label all records and the artifact storage itself.  Keep in mind that you need to ingest the pesticides for them to cause major damage.  If safe handling and storage practices are followed, you should not be at risk from pesticides within your collection.

Corey Smith, Conservator, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum