Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum deep in the swampy heart of the Florida Everglades is a hidden treasure with artifacts, dioramas, and films about Seminole history. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum has been closed since last year.

Taking up the mission, the American Heritage Gallery at the front of the American Adventure Pavilion at Disney’s Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida, has been sharing the Seminole arts story by borrowing objects from Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki.

The current exhibit, “Creating Tradition: Innovation and Change in American Indian Art,” represents 40 American Indian tribes and focuses on how ancestral craftsmanship inspires and relates to contemporary art.

Seminole crafts — bandolier bags, sashes, and dolls — have been on display for the park’s millions of annual visitors to see and learn about the original inhabitants of Florida and the southeast. The crafts are being seen by far more people than would ever pass through the Everglades museum, even at the best of times.

“Our partnerships with museums, like the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, and private lenders give us the opportunity to share these diverse stories with guests that may not encounter them in other settings,” said Deb Van Horn, curator of Walt Disney Imagineering.

The displays from the Seminoles are expected to continue even after the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum reopens as scheduled on Aug. 21. Epcot has been featuring the pieces since 2018.

Mixing old and new

Twice a year, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum staff works with Epcot’s staff to swap out the objects, to keep the exhibits fresh for returning visitors. This allows the Seminoles to share more of the collection and even more of the Seminole story.

Rotating delicate objects requires a careful touch, as dust, light and movement can damage decades-old fabrics and fibers.

A Seminole doll from the 1900s, left, is made of wood and features a baby on the woman's back. A new version, made from palmetto fibers by Seminole artisan Minnie Doctor in 1996, wears similar clothing. The dolls are part of an exhibit of items on loan from the Seminole Tribe of Florida's Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum to the American Heritage Gallery at Disney's Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida. The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum closed to visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic but is set to reopen Aug. 21, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Walt Disney World Resort)

In April, the Ah-Tah-Thi-K museum’s conservator Robin Croskery Howard and registrar Chelsea Nielsen served as couriers, transporting six objects to rotate with eight that had been on display. They worked with Van Horn, who oversees “Creating Tradition” and other exhibits at Epcot. She helped install the four dolls, a dress, and a big shirt that would go on display.

Van Horn said the items represent a mix of past and present, including a child’s big shirt from the 1950s, a child’s dress from the 1990s, a female doll from the early 1900s, a male doll from the 1930s, a female doll by Minnie Doctor (1996), and a female doll from Mabel Osceola (1996).

The oldest object, an early 20th century female doll carved out of wood, signals its particular age since dolls are no longer made of wood. Also on display is a male doll from the 1930s that is made of palmetto fiber, a more pliable material. Both dolls wear traditional clothing; the female dons a rickrack patchwork cape and skirt, the male a turban and big shirt.

What distinguishes these two from the contemporary dolls are their noses — the contemporary dolls emphasize the eyes and lips with no nose. The doll made by Doctor is crafted with palmetto fibers and shows a mother with a baby on her back. Osceola’s doll, also made with palmetto fibers, shows a woman holding a pestle and mortar, poised to grind corn to make the traditional food, sofkee. Both dolls wear traditional capes, skirts and beaded necklaces.

Accompanying the dolls is a boy’s big shirt and a girl’s dress. The big shirt dates to the 1950s and has several rows of applique, a decorative detail that grew in popularity during the 20th century as more varied types of fabrics and rickrack became available. Its vibrant blue color stands out next to the red fabric of the dress, made by Annie Jim in 1990.

The dress is partially cotton but also includes a contemporary synthetic metallic fiber. The metal-coated plastic is a modern material that distinguishes the dress from any earlier clothing. The continuity is patchwork whose colorful bands remain popular features on clothing.

Ancestral craftsmanship

The objects displayed in the Creating Traditions exhibit demonstrate how ancestral craftsmanship inspires contemporary art, and how how styles expand and change.

“The items were chosen to highlight different Seminole crafts such as patchwork, dolls and bead work and how they have changed over time,” Van Horn said. “These changes are often in design and materials. The objects help show how these art forms are influenced by the past but continue to develop over time. We have featured different clothing styles, crafts, and art during each rotation. Many of the works have been textiles which are sensitive to light, so these items change more often than some of the other pieces in the exhibit.”

The exhibit has drawn high praise from visitors, Van Horn said.

“It has been great to see the reactions of the guests,” Van Horn says. “For many of the guests, this may be the first time they have seen this artwork. For other guests, it is nice to see something representing different cultures in the American Adventure Pavilion.

“Our goal with the Epcot galleries is to introduce our guests to the authentic stories of different cultures around the world,” she said. “Sometimes these cultures are in countries that the guests may not have had a chance to visit and other times they are from groups that may be here in the United States.”

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