By Sasha Narinesingh, senior in business marketing
In honor of Native American Heritage Month, the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, in collaboration with the Global Indigenous Forum and the Office of Social Justice and Inclusion, organized a visit to the Seminole Tribe of Florida's Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on Big Cypress Reservation in the Everglades.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida owns and operates the museum and was recognized as a Smithsonian Institution Affiliate. The Seminole Indian Library and Archives are maintained by the museum in order to preserve and make available Seminole and Native American heritage to scholars and the general public.
Earlier this month, I was part of a group of approximately 40 curious minds consisting of faculty, staff and students who traveled into the heart of the Everglades to learn about the Seminole people and their strong cultural and historical ties to the Southeast and Florida. Oh, and what an experience and honor it was! To be invited to come and peek into the history and culture and life of the Seminole Indians was truly a special gift. So, you may be wondering, what did I learn? Well besides my strong advocation for everyone to go and see it for themselves, let me tell you some of my favorite takeaways from a very interesting place where I learned about a part of Florida's history and culture that is often overlooked.
Each clan was named after something in nature.
The Seminoles were divided into a number of clans, which are like families. Wind, Bear, Bird, Deer, Panther, Snake, and Otter were names inspired by nature from which each clan drew inspiration. The names of clans were very important because they were also incorporated into their names during a traditional naming ceremony.
Traditional Seminole marriage was matrilocal.
It was interesting to see a difference in balance with regard to our own societal norms but in this case, we learned from amazing exhibits and our tour guide, Samuel Tommie and Cypress, that the groom would move to his mother-in-law’s camp. He would bring his share of new household items which included various wedding presents from his family and when a child was born, it belonged to the mother's clan. It was against the law to wed someone from your own clan, so big festivals were great places to meet people and form friendships with people from other clans.
They've had a long fight simply to exist.
The museum introduced us to a small theater followed by a movie on how the Seminole tribe came to live in the Everglades hunted by foreigners, how they adapted and how they organized to thrive today. We learned about the three Seminole Wars that spanned multiple decades and began over land that had already been claimed by the Seminoles. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was introduced in the second Seminole War and was enforced by President Andrew Jackson to forcibly remove Native American Tribes.
Numerous tribes were moved to new lands west of the Mississippi, far from where they had previously called home. This act resulted in two of the three Seminole Wars, the infamous Trail of Tears, and numerous deaths. Many tribes gave in since they saw no way to fight but the Seminole Tribe repeatedly resisted removal. From a Seminole's point of view, it is a war that never came to an end, but it was incredibly inspiring to learn that the Seminoles are true survivors able to adapt to their environment despite the immense sadness, upheaval and loss of their people.
Today, the Seminole Tribe has a sovereign government with its own schools, police, and courts. They’ve become self-sufficient as a result of their determination and gaming revenue. The Unconquered Seminole Tribe of Florida has continued to adapt to the changing world as they always have while preserving its traditions, culture and way of life.
Native American culture is beautiful and rich.
With nearly 200,000 pieces in the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s collection, my eyes never tired of seeing the impressive artistry of the pieces. Some of their collections include historical newspapers, beadwork, patchwork clothing, baskets, dolls, militaria and various transient pieces.
Some patterns of patchwork were one-of-a-kind and only made by a select group of Seminole artists. It was fascinating to learn that a skirt can tell a story or have personal significance for the maker or owner. Seminole ladies wore however many strands of glass accessories as they could bear while glass beads were generally used to make belts, necklaces, garters and fobs for the men.
Along with many other incredible skills, Seminoles were excellent woodcarvers. They built homes, canoes and dolls out of wood. They made two different kinds of dolls and each one was dressed in clothes made of fabric, like what a Seminole man or woman would wear.
Whether it was music, artwork, food, furs, clothing, basketry, jewelry, or legendary tales, this museum had it all and did an outstanding job combining different media with historical and modern-day pieces to tell a story.
Nature heals the soul.
After we finished the interior museum, there was an option to take a walk around a mile-long boardwalk winding through the woods in an outdoor exhibit. You could see the real fishing camp of one of the Seminoles, historical sites with tribal members showing and telling a story of long ago and a story of life today. The boardwalk was decorated with many plaques explaining how the local flora and fauna were used by the Seminoles. At the midpoint of the footpath, you can see their re-created ceremonial grounds. Cypress, our tour guide, said that these grounds were like those used as a traditional meeting place for political and religious gatherings. As you near the end of the boardwalk there is a Hunting Camp, depicted with temporary camps set up by Seminoles during hunting season. Hides, plumes, and pelts that the Seminoles used and traded are frequently on display in the camp for visitors to learn more about their culture and traditions. It was a refreshing walk that connected you with nature and engulfed you in a healing energy that was a stark difference from the busy city life we often bury ourselves in.
In the Seminole language, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki means a place to learn, a place to remember. If you want to immerse yourself in a section of history that our textbooks missed, you must go visit the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum! So much history, anthropology, and art help you learn about a diverse tribe from our nation, their origin stories, and the traditions that make them unique.