I picked up a copy of “The Seminole Tribune,” the official paper of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The Seminole Tribe is a native Indian nation with 4,000 members and six reservations across the state. The cover story had a pull quote in large type, “People want to understand the Seminole story. It is the Florida story.” The quote stuck with me.
I was in Fort Lauderdale for TBEX, an annual travel blogger conference. Prior to the event, local tourism promoters invite visiting writers on excursions highlighting things to do in the area. In past years, I’ve done a walking tour of the best craft breweries in Denver and a canoe tour and food tour near Toronto.
One trip stood out from the beachy options planned before the Fort Lauderdale conference–a day dedicated to learning about the Seminole Tribe, including a swamp tour on the Big Cypress Reservation out in the Everglades. I signed up right away. I was eager to learn about this culture, visit the Everglades, and (hopefully!) spot some ‘gators.
Our group boarded a bus in Fort Lauderdale for the one-hour drive out to the reservation. We were joined by Everett Osceola, the official Cultural Ambassador for the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Along the drive, he introduced us to the Seminole tribe, the Everglades environment, and some unexpected facts (e.g. the tribe owns an alligator named “Donald Trump“?)
Our first stop was the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Indian Museum, a Smithsonian-affiliated museum preserving the history, art, and culture of the Seminole people. The orientation film set the context for our trip, where the history of the community was told through the voices of modern day tribe members.
The Seminoles migrated to Florida during the 18th century and established a thriving trade network with the original Spanish, French, and British rulers of the region. You know all the “Forts” in Florida? (Fort Lauderdale, Fort Meyers, etc?) They were originally founded as military fortresses that the Seminoles helped by exchanging food and goods. Through the Spanish period, the Seminoles welcomed freed and runaway black slaves into their community when they had nowhere else to go.
In the early 19th-century, conflicts with white (now, U.S.) settlers escalated. President Andrew Jackson passed the “Indian Removal Act” authorizing the government to forcefully relocate Indian people living within the borders of existing states, to unsettled lands west of the Mississippi. Through the bloody Seminole Wars, most of the tribe members were killed in battle, killed by starvation or disease, or captured by U.S. soldiers and forced onto reservations in Oklahoma.
A few Seminoles hid out deep in the Everglades and managed to survive. The hot, humid, mosquito and prey-riddled swamps challenged Northern troops, and this small group of tribe members were able to successfully fend off the U.S. invasion and maintain their independence. Today, the tribe calls themselves the “unconquered people” as a testament to this unprecedented resistance.
A docent led us through the museum, sharing stories about Seminole life and rituals (such as the “flying fish dance”),
… and traditional crafts, including the stitching of colorful patchwork fabrics.
After the museum, we went right down the street to Billie Swamp Safari for our afternoon wildlife excursions and lunch at the Swamp Water Cafe. The restaurant prepared a spread of American foods and traditional Seminole foods like frog legs, alligator bites, catfish, and rustic fry bread.
We did two different tours–a buggy drive through the forest and an airboat ride through 2,200 acres of everglades swamp land. We saw native and exotic wildlife (bison, water buffalo, ostriches, zebras!), and traditional thatched roof structures called a chickee, built to be a fast and disposable form of shelter when the Seminole people were hiding from US troops.
The airboat ride was the highlight of the tour–I loved zipping through these murky swamp waters and seeing these beautiful and mysterious landscapes.
While I didn’t see any alligators on the airboat ride, when we got back to the dock, we spotted this one… a big one!
Alligator wrestling was the Seminole Tribe’s first foray into tourism. In the 1920’s, visitors would come from miles around to watch these feats of man over beast. As we went to leave, we ran into one of the community’s first female alligator wrestlers who introduced us to this little guy…
They passed him around, to anyone who was brave enough to hold him (not me), but I ran my hand over his scales. Alligators are beautiful and, unfortunately, threatened creatures. Climate change and environmental pollution are making it hard for native wildlife to survive. Osceola told us that alligator population counts are down, and the animals that are hatching are not growing to be as large as they had in the past.
Like other indigenous communities here in the U.S. and around the world, the Seminole people have struggled–and continue–to struggle to build a sustainable economy. The Seminole tribe has been fairly successful in creating jobs while working to preserve their traditions. I was glad to learn there are opportunities for tourists to visit the reservation and learn about this community. For Florida vacationers looking to get beyond the beach and learn about Florida’s history, culture, and environment, the Big Cypress reservation is the perfect choice.
These lovely ladies and I were guests of Florida Seminole Tourism–sho na bish (thank you) for hosting this adventure!