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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

Growling bears. Stickball. Vivid patchwork clothing. Vibrant street art murals.

These disparate objects live together in the heart of the Everglades at the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.

Filled with more than dusty artifacts, the compound is home to 180,000 unique items that bring Seminole history to life. And finally, after a shutdown of more than a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum opened its doors again on Monday, Feb. 14, with two new exhibits.

The new exhibits include a painting show by artist and writer Elgin Jumper and one dedicated to Buffalo Tiger, the first chief of the Miccosukee.

“We receive donations, stories and contributions from decades of tribal members that inform the collection,” said the museum’s new director, Gordon “Ollie” Wareham, Seminole. , “We invite the public to be part of the tribe’s history in the very spot where they reside. We put out folders of family history and allow members to research them and contribute.”

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The museum is based on tribal lands that the Seminole’s have called home since creation, and where they hid out during the Seminole Wars of 1816, making them an undefeated tribe.

About an hour west of the East Coast in the town of Clewiston, the museum has a boardwalk that snakes around the back of the building where birds, a profusion of native plant life and an occasional bear can be seen. Across the street is a large field that is the site for annual arts festivals, though the last two years have been paused due to the pandemic.

The museum shut down from March 2020 to August 2021, then closed down again in late December 2021 because of the pandemic. During the interim, it shared objects with the American Heritage Gallery, at the front of the American Adventure Pavilion at Disney’s Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida.

An inside look

Wareham and James Patrick, head of exhibitions, gave Indian Country Today a behind-the-scenes tour of the upcoming exhibits as Jumper’s paintings were being prepared and framed for display in a large, climate-controlled vault.

The show will be exhibited in the Mosaic Gallery, and a short documentary, “Elgin Jumper’s Colorful Journey,” filmed and produced by Seminole Media Productions, will accompany the paintings.

The film details his journey of healing through art, literally using a blank canvas, as a way to create “colorful, meaningful, purposeful painting,” he said in an interview with The Seminole Tribune.

Jumper has been drawing since he was 6 years old. His paintings are of reservation life and landscapes in the tribal community, with sunsets over the Everglades, warriors on horseback, chiefs in full dress featuring feathered head wraps and patchwork clothing.

Works by Seminole artist Elgin Jumper remained in storage at the Seminole Tribe of Florida's Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, which was closed for more than a year because of the pandemic. Jumper's works are among two new exhibits for the museum's reopening on Feb. 14, 2022. Museum director Gordon Wareham and archivist Laura Dello Russo look over the works during a tour of the closed facility in late 2021. (Photo by Sandra Hale Schulman for Indian Country Today)

Another new exhibit, in the Nook Gallery, will feature Buffalo Tiger’s history-making life. Tiger, who died in 2015, led the Miccosukee to federal recognition as a tribe in the 1950s.

It was a dramatic political move, after he became head of the tribe’s general council in 1957, that first captured the world’s attention.

After a major highway cut the Seminole reservation in half, Tiger learned the U.S. government was planning to phase out the Miccosukee tribe and give recognition only to the larger Seminole population.

In response, he drew up a constitution on a deer hide and presented it for recognition to various countries. In 1959, Tiger took a delegation in traditional clothing by plane to the island nation, where they met with Che Guevera and Fidel Castro, who were eager to sign an alliance with a tribe based on the mainland of the United States.

In 1962, the U.S. government, fearing the impact and the influence the new Cuban Communist government would have in the U.S., decided to recognize the tribe, granting them sovereign status.

Tiger was elected the first tribal chairman in 1962 and served until 1985.

Buffalo Tiger, former chief of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, is shown here in 1999 at the entrance to Buffalo Tiger's Airboat Tours in the Florida Everglades, a business he started. He died in 2015. (AP Photo/Amy E. Conn)

Born in a chickee hut, Tiger went on to build successful eco-tourism businesses in the Everglades, including the first Airboat tours. He helped the tribe take control of programs and oversaw big leaps in economic development, medicine, and education. He helped found the Miccosukee Indian Village Museum in 1983 to hold concerts, art fairs, alligator wrestling and restaurants that served “swamp food” of gator, turtle, and frog.

For the new exhibit, a replica of his original deer-hide constitution is being created in the museum’s restoration room, a chemical lab where items are created and restored for display and archiving.

Old newspaper clippings are coated in preservative solution; faded, cracked photographs are brought back to life. The mannequins on display in the many dioramas are carefully clothed and adorned with jewelry and headdresses, with accurate hairstyles of the times.

Ready for business

The vaults hold fascinating objects, including rifles from the 1800s used in the Seminole Wars, rolling racks filled with artwork, boxes filled with period clothing that is rotated on display at the museum and also in an exchange program with Epcot Center in Orlando. Canoes 30 feet long are stored on shelves, along with taxidermied bears and alligators.

Library Registrar Laura Dello Russo opens the periodical vault rooms to show the thousands of documents archived.

“We keep everything neatly labeled in numbered boxes for easy reference,” Russo said. “The library contains hundreds of books and magazine archives, photographs and folders the tribe maintains with family histories, all available for research. It’s all climate-controlled and we are constantly adding and updating the archives.”

Out in the museum are several rotating exhibits that run the gamut from past to present to future.

A display on the history of alligator wrestling is colorful and entertaining, with films and images of the fearsome critters and the wrestlers through a chickee hut entrance. Vintage photos show how the huge alligators were hunted in the 1800s, and how they became a source of food, clothing, exchange, and entertainment into the 20th century.

Wall texts explain everything from what to wear when wrestling – hair pulled back, pants rolled up, arms protected, shoes off – to how to control the alligator with a stick. Touchable hides, skulls and teeth on display let viewers get up close.

At the museum exit is a startling graffiti mural of a Seminole couple in traditional dress wearing gas masks. The mural, by Alyssa Osceola called “Societal Distancing,” is spray-painted onto corrugated sheets of aluminum.

“This was originally on the former bingo hall down the street, a huge warehouse that attracted thousands in its ‘70s and ‘80s heyday,” Patrick said. “It was saved during the tear-down and is now part of the museum’s collection, bridging the traditional arts and how they are being created by a younger generation.”

Wareham said he is ready to open the museum’s doors once again to the public.

“The Seminole are resilient,” Wareham said. “We are proud to be reopening and to show new exhibits that celebrate who we are and where we come from.”

FOR MORE INFO
For more information, visit the museum’s website.

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