Seminole Culture at Florida’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum

Catfish dance display at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Florida (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Catfish dance display, part of Green Corn Ceremony religious traditions shown at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Florida (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The state of Florida is rich in tribal culture; visit the Trail of Florida’s Indian Heritage to see all of the archaeological sites, history museums, and parks laid out on a map. One that is worth a visit is in the southern part of the state, and makes a nice stop right off of the major east-west artery called “Alligator Alley” (Interstate 75) between Fort Lauderdale and the Naples/Fort Myers area.

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum …  the word means “a place to learn” … on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation highlights tribal culture and history with permanent exhibits, special displays, and a mile-long raised wooden boardwalk that introduces visitors to the local plants, animals, and birds.

Even though you will see endless Everglades grass and water on your way to the museum, the land turns into open fields and cypress trees with lots of cattle. I was surprised to learn that Florida’s Seminoles are one of the largest cattle producers in the United States.

Florida Everglades sea of grass as seen from an Alligator Alley highway stop in Francis S Taylor Wildlife Management Area (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The Florida Everglades “sea of grass” as seen from an Alligator Alley highway stop in the Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area near the Miccosukee Reservation and the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Normally you start a tour of the museum by seeing a short film “We Seminoles,” but it wasn’t working the day I was there because of a projector problem. There is also a Living Village of working Seminole artisans halfway around the boardwalk, but there was nobody in it because I was there on Halloween and apparently people were busy elsewhere doing Halloween stuff.

It was a rather casual approach for a museum, but the front desk guy was entertaining and I really enjoyed the exhibits and boardwalk, so I didn’t mind. I’d definitely go back for one of their special events, like the annual American Indian Arts Celebration in early November.

Centuries ago, some of the Seminole in Florida “disappeared” into the Everglades and endless cypress of south Florida, and between evading capture and the Seminole Wars, they avoided being herded into Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears with thousands of their tribal brethren.

Seminole metal grater to grind coontie root for food at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Florida (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Seminole metal grater to grind coontie root for food at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Florida (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

They have rotating special exhibits in the museum, including one during my visit that featured the distinctive art of Seminole patchwork. The introduction of sewing machines in the 1920’s resulted in an explosion of fabric crafts within the tribe.

Vibrant Seminole patchwork in a special exhibit at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Florida (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Vibrant Seminole patchwork in a special exhibit at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Florida (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

I loved the traditional dress and jewelry details on these cornhusk palm fiber dolls….

Seminole patchwork palm fiber dolls in a special exhibit at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Florida (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Seminole patchwork dolls in a special exhibit at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Florida (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Traditional Seminole clothing includes blouson-type shirts worn by the men, like this one….

Seminole patchwork shirt from a special exhibit at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Florida (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Seminole patchwork shirt from a special exhibit at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Florida (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

I did not think I would want to walk the entire mile-long circle of the raised boardwalk, but it became a highlight of my visit.

There are many signs all along the way that tell you what you’re seeing, and explain how the Florida tribes used the various native plants, in particular.

Raised boardwalk through cypress dome area at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Florida (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Mile-long raised boardwalk through a cypress dome area at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Florida (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The cypress dome that you walk through may seem quiet (especially midday when I was there) but it is teeming with creatures like the Florida Red-Bellied Cooter – a turtle – which is a common food for the Seminole. The cypress trees are used to frame the traditional thatched chickee structures, and to make dugout canoes, poles for frog gigging and fishing, and firewood.

It is a quiet and peaceful walk, beautifully green even in winter. The signage goes into extraordinary detail about how the Seminole use each plant for medicinal purposes; cypress resin is a “diuretic, carminative, and a wound healer.” The ubiquitous Spanish moss (related to pineapples, oddly enough) is used to make teas for “swelling, rheumatism, and high blood pressure. Mixed with lard, the plant was used to treat hemorrhoids.”

Well, then….

Yes, there are gators under and around you, but they don’t want to deal with you, either, and signs remind visitors not to “feed, taunt, or touch alligators or other animals that you may encouter on the grounds.”

I startled both a heron and an ibis, and I’m not sure who jumped higher when they went crashing out of their hiding places and took to the sky right next to me.

Seminole chickee construction at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Florida (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Seminole chickee construction at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Florida (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The chickees in the Ceremonial Grounds and Living Village along the boardwalk are marvels of construction; I spent a lot of time simply looking up at the intricate geometric patterns made by the beams and thatch on the ceilings.

Dugout canoe in progress at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Florida (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Dugout canoe in progress at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Florida (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki is the first tribally-owned and governed museum to be accredited by the American Association of Museums. There is also a research library, an oral history program, and a conservation lab that preserves and documents artifacts.

I enjoyed my visit, and recommend a stop at the museum to gain a deeper understanding of this interesting Florida tribe.

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