Museum offers adventure

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CLEWISTON, Fla. - Have you ever walked through a cypress swamp without getting your feet wet?

That's just one of the many adventures ahead for you at the Seminole Tribe's Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, a tribally owned, state of the art facility with two locations. The flagship museum is in Big Cypress on 66 acres of land (and swamp) and a smaller satellite facility is in Hollywood. The tribe has six separate reservations in south Florida.

Museum Director Anne McCudden described some of the most popular museum features in addition to the raised boardwalk running through a mile of cypress swamp. A reconstructed historical village depicts the lives of the Seminoles during the late 1800s. There, tribal elders create sweet grass baskets, beaded necklaces and wood carvings. They also cook some of the Seminoles' traditional foods and are happy to answer visitors' questions. An orientation film gives visitors an introduction to Seminole tribal life, cosmology, traditional economy, and pre- and post-contact history.

Located just 65 miles from a metropolitan area, the museum is about an hour's drive from Fort Lauderdale or Naples. Nearby lodging is comprised of a campground with cabins and, at another site, ''very rustic'' cabins.

Most visitors make this a day trip. Being off the beaten path, said McCudden, is one of the museum's most attractive features. ''The drive is an opportunity to see some beautiful landscapes and to spot wildlife - otters, raccoons, gators, snakes and hawks - as well as the more common animals such as deer.''

Tribal members make up approximately one-third of the museum staff.

The original idea for the museum was put forward in the 1980s, explained McCudden, by a number of people who had a general feeling that someone should be in charge of preserving Seminole culture and history. Billy Larry Cypress, a tribal historian and educator, was among the museum's strongest supporters, one of its founders and its first executive director.

The museum opened in 1997 with a few collections and has grown to 11,000 items and several rich research collections, reflecting one of the museum's primary goals - to be a resource for information about the tribes of ''The Nation,'' which includes all the tribes of the southeastern United States.

A library of books, newspapers, journals and reference material is available for research, but cannot be loaned. One thousand government documents related to interactions between Indians and the federal government from the 1800s through the mid-1900s provide historical information on 60 tribes. Indian removal, the Seminole Wars and Indian/non-Indian relations are documented in an extensive newspaper collection.

The Ethel Cutler Freeman Collection of 700 photos taken between 1939 and 1967, along with manuscripts, travel diaries and photo negatives, document the time that Freeman spent studying the Seminoles.

The John Brown Letters Collection describes life in Florida during the Seminole Wars.

In addition, thousands of artifacts occupy the 5,000-square-foot exhibit space, as do one changing exhibit, at the moment showing Seminole baskets and dolls.

No mandate from the federal or state government created the museum - it is solely the work of the tribe. A terrific amount of funds, energy and planning have gone into creating the facility, McCudden said.

Gaming revenues, which also support other tribal needs such as schools, health care and social services, pay for the museum, where admission costs are very reasonable - $6 for adults and $4 for children and seniors. Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki is open every day from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., except on a few major holidays each year.

The facility is the first tribally owned museum to be accredited by the American Museum Association.

For more information, call (863) 902-1113 or visit www.ahtahthiki.com.