Miccosukee Festival: Dance, Art and Alligators
Sandra Hale Schulman
Deep in the humid heart of the Florida Everglades, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians hosted their annual Indian Arts & Crafts Festival at the Miccosukee Indian Village.
The spacious village along Tamiami Trail brings out thousands of visitors for the weeklong fest filled with music and dance from Plains and Apache tribes. There are arts and crafts as well as authentic Native foods, alligator wrestling demonstrations and Village tours of the beautiful wildness of the Everglades.
With over 45 vendors, performers and demonstrators, this is the largest gathering of its kind in South Florida outside of powwows. The festival village grounds are a permanent structure with a museum, gift shop, snack bar, and amphitheater, a large alligator and turtle pool where the wrestling demonstrations happen and multiple food vendors. The cuisine includes Gator Platters, catfish and frog legs along with fry bread.
The highlights this year included dance from the knockout White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers from Winslow, Arizona. Born and raised on the White Mountain Apache reservation in the Whiteriver community of North Central Arizona, Joe Tohonnie, Jr. was the ebullient host as he draws inspiration for performing from his culture. His grandfather, Stacey Classey, was a medicine man who sang traditional Apache songs, and his father Joe Tohonnie Sr. shared traditional Navajo songs with him.
His Dzilth Ligai White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers are his family, they honor their traditional values and their integrity.
This astounding visual dance from Apache Indians who perform White Mountain Spirit healing rites acquire the masked images they personify through personal vision. Mountain Spirit masks are buckskin hoods painted black, that fits snugly over the head and are secured by a drawstring gathered about the neck. Tiny holes are cut for the eyes and for the mouth. Attached to the top of the hood is a complex upright structure of wooden slats, brightly painted and decorated, sometimes referred to as horns. On each side hang short wooden slat earrings that strike against one another, making the distinctive sound of the approaching Mountain Spirits. Their bodies are painted black with crosses and bells attached to their belts and feet.
One white painted dancer mask differs from the others, being made of scraped buckskin and decorated with big ears. The clown is the servant and messenger for the other dancers. They chant and pay homage to the four directions with bird calls and stomping. They stomp around a fire and beat out rhythms. After the mesmerizing performance, the audience was invited to form a big circle around the arena as the ‘White One’ went around and shook blessings into every person's hands.
Colorful and energetic, the next featured performers were the Great Plains Dance Company, a high-energy show featuring wild feathered regalia adorned with vivid assortments of brightly-colored ribbons, feathers, and beads, and furs; all of which honor the nations' elders and the legacy of traditional arts. Imitating eagles the dancers soared and swooped around the stage as actual hawks soared above the amphitheater.
The Iroquois Sky Dancers from upstate New York performed dances that honor apple picking and matrilineal clans. After the show, the whole troupe posed for photos with festival-goers.
A Miccosukee fashion show highlighted the elaborate patchwork designs, modeled by toddlers, teens, and elders who twirled the stage in their capes, skirts, shirts, and dresses.
Featured artist Bunk Echo Hawk, a Pawnee from Oklahoma, had traveled to Miami in a van with his family. The acclaimed national artist, who has made designs for Nike and Pendleton, had recently completed a mural for the tribe in the art soaked Miami neighborhood Wynwood, where murals by many famous artists have turned it into a tourist mecca.
At the Festival, Echo Hawk set up under a chickee hut and did live painting, completing a painting every two days that were then donated to the tribe. He said he was “glad to be in Miami and not the Oklahoma winter” as he mixed colors on a large palette and greeted people who stopped to watch and make comments.
The Miccosukee are in a unique situation as most of their reservation lands are underwater, so they have to take advantage of what they have. The Everglades provide swamp tours and airboat rides which were started by their first chief Buffalo Tiger. Food (gator, catfish, frogs, turtles) plays a major part in the ecosystem, and they protect the glades that filter water from the rivers and lakes into the ocean. They have a casino resort and produce beautiful unique rick rack hand-sewn clothing.
Gator hides are another big business and as the plains buffalo, they use all the parts of the animal. They eat them, wrestle them, adorn themselves with them, wearing the teeth and skins. Heads are sold in the gift shop.
The small but proud tribe has survived, thrived and flourished in their watery heat infused world. The annual festival is their big way of giving back and giving thanks.
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.