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!

Become an honorary gator wrestler!

By Alyssa Boge

What does it take to be a gator wrestler?

Alligator wrestling is no easy feat! It takes dedication and training. In order to wrestle, Seminoles first have to ask permission of the Snake Clan. They need to learn about the traditions. They need to learn about alligators and how to wrestle them while staying safe.

 In our new exhibit “Alligator Wrestling: Danger. Entertainment. Tradition.” you can discover what it takes. You can even become an honorary gator wrestler!

Christine Rizzi and Tori Warenik became our first honorary gator wrestlers!

Until the exhibit ends in November, any guest, no matter their age, can earn their badge. All you have to do is ask at the front for your missions. Just as gator wrestlers have a lot to learn, you’ll have your own knowledge to gain and tasks to accomplish.

Test your gator knowledge and find out what makes alligators dangerous. Listen to experienced alligator wrestlers about their experiences and hear the ‘Legend of the Alligator and the Eagle’. See if you can open a gator’s jaws and touch a gator’s teeth. Find out how alligator wrestling all began. Discover the different wrestling moves like the Florida Smile and the Face Off and try them out yourself (on our gator dummy).

You can do this program on your own or with a group. We welcome scout groups and field trips and will work with you to add this activity to your programs.

When all the activities are completed, a tour guide will review your packet or materials and you’ll say our gator wrestler pledge. Then you will receive your honorary badge sticker or button. The design features Alligator Wrestler, Billy Walker, when he was younger and his daughter Shylah. Below you can see them posing with the image in the exhibit!

Billy and Shylah pose next to the exhibit graphic that was inspired by them.

Come out and give it a try!

10 Reasons to Visit the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki in 2020


We hope that a visit to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum is on your list of things to do during 2020.  For those looking for a special place to enjoy with family and friends, take in history and culture, or experience the beauty of the Everglades, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki is the perfect destination.  There is so much to do and learn at the Museum and hope you will make your way to Big Cypress!

1) Experience Seminole history and culture
There is no better place to learn about and experience the history and culture of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.  For 22 years, the Tribe has been sharing their history and stories with visitors from around the world.

2) Alligator Wrestling: Danger. Entertainment. Tradition
Our newest exhibit explores the deep roots of the Seminole’s relationship to alligators. Discover how alligator wrestling took hold and how it helps preserve culture and tradition today.  On exhibit through December 2020. AW Title

3) Great Florida Birding Trail
Did you know that the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s Boardwalk is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail?  65 species of birds have been identified within the cypress dome behind the Museum.  Let us know which birds you see on your next visit!

4) Unique merchandise
Our Museum Store offers unique and exclusive merchandise in every price range. We promote Seminole and Native American artisans and makers.  Stop by on your next visit or visit is online at https://seminole-store.com/

 5) Special Programs and Events
Be on the lookout for family friendly programming throughout the year. This winter, we will be continuing our popular Boardwalk After Hours tour and each November you can count on the fun-filled 2 day American Indian Arts Celebration event.  All upcoming programs and events can be found on our website or our social media

6) #BeautifulBoardwalk
Our mile long boardwalk takes you around a natural cypress dome. There is a chance you may be able to see some incredible Florida wildlife including bobcats, panthers, snakes, and alligators.  The dome transforms itself from season to season and you’ll no doubt enjoy experiencing this unique ecosystem firsthand.


7) Research Opportunities
Interested in learning more about who the Seminole Tribe of Florida is? The Museum serves as a center of research for Seminole culture and Native American history in the Southeastern United States.  Take advantage of this resource by making an appointment today with our Research Coordinator by calling (877) 902-1113 x12252.

8) 2020 Lecture Series
We are looking forward to our 2020 Lecture Series.  Join us on February 21st at our community center To-Pee-Kee-Ke Yak-Ne (just down the street from the Museum) as we welcome our first lecturer of 2020, Tina Marie Osceola.  Ms. Osceola is an enrolled member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and an active participant in Native American politics.  Details will be available on our website.

9) Everglades Destination
Did you know that the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum is just one of many attractions on the Big Cypress Reservation?  Check out Billie Swamp Safari and the Big Cypress RV Resort and Campground for more information on all Big Cypress has to offer!

Airboat rides available at Billie Swamp Safari

10) The Perfect Escape from the Hustle and Bustle
Whether you are visiting from near or far, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum can be an escape from the hectic day-to-day.  An hour outside of Fort Lauderdale and Naples, the Museum offers a place to unwind and take in true Florida history, culture, and beauty. 


 We hope that your next visit out to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum will be memorable.  If we can help you plan your visit, please contact us at 863-902-1113 and we’ll be happy to assist.

Sally in front pond



Great exhibits take collaboration

By Rebecca Fell-Mazeroski

A lot of people think of exhibits as something handled by the Exhibits Department with little to no input from others. My experience, however, has been that the best exhibitions involve a lot of collaboration with other departments and the community. Our latest exhibit: “Alligator Wrestling: Danger. Entertainment, Tradition.” is a great example of strong collaboration.

Like most of our exhibits, we rely on the Collections team to help us source objects in the collection and make sure they are safely displayed. Even other departments outside the museum become vital. Up the road, our pals at Billie Swamp Safari provided the welding and metal skills to help install the totem pole in this display.

Our co-workers down at Billie Swamp Safari used their superior welding tools to make a stable metal base for our totem pole display.

We are lucky enough to have an oral historian, Justin Giles, to conduct interviews and search the archives for stories and interviews that come from alligator wrestlers. If there is one thing I have learned working for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, it is the voice of the community is vital and needs to be heard in the Museum. Also, spending time in their archives, Seminole Media Productions (SMP) provided us a short film allowing visitors to experience alligator wrestling matches.

Of course, getting interviews from alligator wrestlers involves sharing and collaborating with them on the every aspect of the exhibit. Every good exhibit topic has more stories and themes than we can share with visitors. The wrestlers, like Billy Walker, Zac Battiest, Everett Osceola, and the Holt Brothers, are essential in pointing out what stories matter to them. That is how we develop the text, displays, and interactives. Jack Chalfant, THPO staff member and retired alligator wrestler, and his team built a 7’ x 7’ chickee in the museum in two days. Along the way, the museum consulted with Facilities and the Seminole Fire Department to meet safety requirements.

Community member Jack Chalfant and his team put a chickee together inside the museum in two days. Jack is a cattleman, THPO staff member, and retired alligator wrestler

Additional help came from other community members. Marlin Billie was able to share his experiences growing up in a tourist village, including all the gator wrestlers he knew. Cody Motlow, who is working with us through the Tribe’s Work Experience Program , gave us a much needed  pair of hands, some good proof-reading, and even an another photo to use in the displays.

Robin Croskery-Howard, Conservator, is always on hand at installs to ensure the safety of the objects. Cody Motlow, WEP intern, is helping install a postcard. Cody also provided additional community insight and resources.

We are truly excited about our exhibit on Alligator Wrestling because it feels like something that is bigger than the Exhibits Department and even the Museum itself. I hope you get a chance to come see it and enjoy it!

“Alligator Wrestling: Danger. Entertainment. Tradition.”  is open now and on display until November 29, 2020. The opening reception will be on January 11th, 2020 from 1 pm – 4 pm.

Archaeology Isn’t Just Digging in the Dirt Anymore

By Shawn Keyte, Field Technician

In July 2019, myself and Ben Bilgri from the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) went to the National Archives in Washington D.C. to find information on the Seminole Wars. The majority of historical records identify three Seminole Wars spanning between 1816‐1858, but for the Seminoles, it was one long war that lasted for 42 years. On this trip, we specifically focused on the Third Seminole War (1855‐1858) as this occurred primarily in the area surrounding what is now the Big Cypress Indian Reservation. We were in hopes of finding written correspondence, maps, or any other documents that would help us better understand how far the United States Government went in trying to remove the Seminoles from Florida.

The U.S. Military keeps extensive records of all the conflicts they are involved in, even as far back as the Seminole Wars. The records we were interested in are called “post returns”. These are basically letters from soldiers and officers that were sent to and from commanders that contained information such as supply routes, fort locations, weather conditions, troop movements, troop morale, and many other topics that paint a picture of what it was actually like at that time during this conflict. Other than oral histories from Tribal Members, this is the only way for us to get an idea what it was like for the Seminoles during this time period. The Seminoles did not keep a written history of the Seminole Wars, but by studying the U.S. Military’s records, we can better understand what happened first hand by some of those who were actually there. Although these records are from the perspective of the military personnel operating in south Florida, they can still help us to learn about the Seminole effort to defend their homeland.

In preparation for our research trip, we had identified the names of several soldiers, officers, military units, and military forts located in south Florida that were operational during the time period of 1855‐1858. Much of this information was gathered using previous research that had been performed by Ben and I, other members of the THPO, as well as books, documents, and Tribal Member oral histories. We used these names like keywords when searching the Archives’ record database, and by the end of the first day, we had several carts full of documents to begin looking through.

We found a plethora of new information on forts, such as a map from 1855 showing the locations of two prominent U.S. Forts, Fort Simon Drum and Fort Shackelford (Figure 1), as well as how and when they were built, and the materials used to build them. We also discovered a lot of new information about the skirmish that renewed hostilities between the Seminoles and the U.S. Military in December 1855. Tribal Member oral histories and previous literature is abundant in reference to this skirmish, but reading a document written by one of the soldiers involved in the fight really gave us insight into what happened.

Figure 1: Map of the Big Cypress Swamp drawn by Lt. George Hartsuff, acting Topographical Engineer,
2nd Artillery, 1855.

We hope to make future trips to the Archives and get even more information surrounding the Seminole War period that may not available to us by any other means. Having the confidence that the material we are presenting to the Tribal Community and the public is as accurate as possible is very important to us as we continue to help the Seminoles tell their story.