At the edge of the Florida Everglades, the Miccosukee Tribe has carved out a culturally rich life that centers on the natural environment. Each year they celebrate with a day-long festival that exhibits the best of what they have created in what some might label an inhospitable swamp.
And part of that natural environment is gators, big chomping toothy-grinned gators.
In the expansive grounds in front of the Miccosukee Resort and Gaming on a steamy 93 degree September 28th there were airboat rides, craft exhibits, exotic swamp foods of gator tail and frog legs, and the main attraction, judging by the crowds, of an alligator show.
According to members of the tribe, If it wasn’t for the Native Florida villages and also the help of other eco-friendly gator farms, the American Alligator would have been extinct 30 years ago.
In a large tent, families packed the bleachers around a fenced-in sandpit to watch the spectacle they put on hourly from 11 am to 5 pm.
“I’ve been doing this for ten years,” says gator show host Jessie before a show, whose calloused bare feet and scarred arms show the hazards of the job. “I started as a volunteer at the Native Village down the road and pretty soon I was General Manager. We keep the gators there, about 20 of them, in a pond. I started training with the baby gators, then the bigger teenage gators. You have to work your way up. After about 7 months I felt ready to do a show with the full-grown ones. The first time I was terrified but I wasn’t narrating. Four months later it was time to take the show over.”
The wrangler hosts wear a headset as they talk to the audience and explain what they are doing while circling, pulling, and eventually climbing on the backs of the huge scaly alligators.
“We don’t see this as a sport, we’re not really wrestling them, it’s educational,” he explains.
“Gators are misunderstood and need to be respected. The wild caught ones we have to tend to be more aggressive than the ones we raise in captivity. Trappers bring them in from areas they stray to that have a lot of people around. We feed them regularly but they really only eat about once a week as they digest really slow. When I narrate I have to really slow down and focus. I talk about the fear factor and how if you get attacked it’s never the gators fault, always the person's fault. You shouldn’t be in their environment and if you are you better know what to do.”
Jessie shows the result of one of his faulty encounters, a large swath of heavily scarred skin on his right arm that went directly into the mouth of a 12-foot gator ironically named Lunch.
“I wasn’t paying attention and he grabbed me straight on,” he says grinning at the memory. “I was in the water with him and he was flipping me around like a rag doll. He rolled me a few times and as I pulled my arm out he peeled the skin clean off. In the ambulance I was in shock, they needed to do a skin graft from my leg. A few weeks later I was right back to it.”
As the 3 pm show began there was a surprise— a female wrangler, her hair all twisted up in tight braids with tattoos circling her neck stepped into the ring. Jessie began talking as they pulled two 10-foot gators from the corner who looked none too pleased to be woken up. They mounted their backs and held up the snouts in tandem, pried open the jaws and showed off the surprisingly white mouth and teeth. They lowered their hands and heads into the mouth to the delight – and horror- of the crowd. It all lasted about 15 tense minutes, then they hopped out of the ring to pose for photos as the crowds swarmed.
In another large tent, there were demonstrations of spear and canoe carving along with beading and patchwork sewing. Patchwork is a particular Miccosukee craft shared by the Seminole, as bright pieces of fabric are sewn into intricate symbolic strips depicting rain, lightning, and Native animals such as panther and otter. The strips are sewn together to make voluminous skirts and jackets. Despite the heat, the traditional clothing is high-necked, long-sleeved and down to the ground to protect the skin from the elements and bugs.
The bright clothing fits the tribe with a colorful past that found their first Chief Buffalo Tiger gaining Federal recognition in 1959 after playing Cuba’s new leader, Fidel Castro against the reluctant United States. The U.S., fearing a communist stronghold in Florida, agreed to grant them status if they renounced Cuba.
Chief Tiger started the first airboat business and his sons Stephen and Lee Tiger started a rock band called Tiger Tiger before working with the tribe.
The thriving Seminole now have a booming tourism business with fishing licenses, National Parks and airboat rides that take visitors deep into the sawgrass swamp to see the flocks of birds and gator nesting grounds.
The gambling business, in one large hotel resort, continues to grow with new games and live entertainment.
Sandra Hale Schulman, Cherokee, has been writing about Native issues since 1994. She is an author of four books, has contributed to shows at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and has produced three films on Native musicians.