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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to ICT

HOLLYWOOD, Florida — Everett Osceola mixes ’gators and Hollywood glam in what may be one of the most unusual — and dangerous — careers in Indian Country.

As cultural ambassador of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Osceola is founder of the Native Reel Cinema Festival, and has added actor and executive producer to his resume.

When you’re in the swamp, though, you use what you’ve got, and the Seminoles have alligators. So Osceola also wrestles alligators – a popular event among the Seminole.

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“The reason the Seminole are called the unconquered is because we never signed a treaty,” Osceola told ICT recently. “We retreated into the swamps and had to fight the alligators as a source for food. That wrestling became a tradition and then a tourist attraction.”

Everett Osceola, the Seminole Tribe of Florida's cultural ambassador, is also an actor and producer who wrestles alligators on the side. (Photo courtesy of Everett Osceola)

Gator-wrestling villages were a forerunner to attractions like bingo and Indian gaming and entertainment on Seminole lands, and gator-wrestling is still a regular feature at pow wows and fairs. They are performed at villages in the swamps and in the billion-dollar Hard Rock Guitar Hotel, to packed crowds.

 Osceola starred in a 2020 short film, “Halpate,” which is Seminole for alligator, co-directed by Adam Piron, Kiowa/Mohawk, who now heads the Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program, and Adam Khalil. 

The film shows Osceola getting down and dirty in the pits with ferocious gators, participating in competitions called Freestyle Alligator Wrestling Competitions. In one scene a wrestler gets his head chomped down on – he survived – and others lose fingers.

And Osceola is already focused on getting into the pits again at the Seminole Tribal Fair and Pow Wow in February as a farewell bout.

Moving into the film business

Osceola grew up on the Brighton Reservation in South Florida, wrestling alligators as part of tribal tradition starting as a young teen, and watching horror movies.

“One of my favorite movies is ‘Friday the 13th, Part Six’,” Osceola told ICT. “Because it looked like it was shot in Brighton. Late at night, it was pitch black, you’d hear something, and I felt like I was in the movie.”

He earned a degree in psychology and then worked three years in the Seminole broadcasting department before moving to the tribe’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. In 2014, after nine years at the museum, he was named cultural ambassador, serving as the tribal spokesperson, lecturing around the world on Seminole history and culture, and appearing in numerous documentaries and on the National Geographic channel.

A 2017 panel discussion about Sterlin Harjo's film, "Mekko," at the Seminole Tribe of Florida's Native Reel Cinema Festival included, from left, Martin Sensmeier, Irene Bedard, Roseanne Supernault and Harjo. (Photo by Sandra Hale Schulman)

The film festivals started small and built over time.

Osceola’s love for film and his position as cultural ambassador led him to being asked in November 2014 to screen the now-cult classic film, “The Exiles,” about the young exiled Native community in downtown Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill in the 1950s, along with an updated version.

“Seminole singer/actor Spencer Battiest had just come back from LA, and told me that producer Pamela Peters was looking to redistribute the 1950s movie ‘The Exiles’ and a film she made on contemporary exiled natives called ‘Legacy of Exiled NDNZ.’ I asked if we could show it at Stranahan House, a local historic house in Ft. Lauderdale. I called it Native Reel Cinema Festival.”

The screening in 2014 was a success, so he decided to show it again the next year at the Seminole Tribal Fair at the Hard Rock Hotel, along with “Ronnie Bo Dean,” a comedy film by Steven Paul Judd, Kiowa-Choctaw, starring Wes Studi, Cherokee. They screened it in 2015 at a classic movie theater in the mall of the Hard Rock Hotel complex to a full house. The director and actors attended the screening.

“That's when I ran into Stevie Salas, Apache rockstar/guitar player for Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger.” Osceola recalled. “Stevie comes up to me and says, ‘I’m working on a film called ‘Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World,’ and I have a trailer I can show. Also Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas is in it, and doing some music videos on pipeline causes with a Native supergroup called Mag 7 with Spencer Battiest and his brother Doc Native.”

The festivals grew from there, he said.

“The next year we showed the trailer for ‘Rumble,’ and Taboo performed,” he said. “That was our most successful, but it was chaotic because he is such a big star. The video was on MTV, and so many people showed up we were almost shut down by the fire marshals. We were trying to hold everything back and hundreds of people were pushing open the doors. By this time, we had to move to the makeshift indoor arena, as everything was being torn down to build the Guitar Hotel.”

Alligator wrestling has long been popular among the Seminole Tribe of Florida, as shown in this photo from the tribe's Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Indian Reservation in Hendry, Florida. (Photo by Sandra Hale Schulman)

After that blow-out, Osceola decided to make the festivals smaller by just screening films, inviting actors, and having panels. He hosted the anniversary screening of “Smoke Signals” with Gary Farmer, and has since hosted a number of other actors, including Gil Birmingham, Martin Sensmeier, Wes Studi, Graham Greene and Irene Bedard.

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The actors typically host one of their films, speak on panels and then sign autographs and memorabilia for the audience.

“I continued Native Reel because I was going to these film fests like imagineNATIVE and nobody in Florida heard about them because we're way in the South,” he said. “I met Taika Waititi, Māori, and offered to help with his film. Then I get a message on my Facebook that said, ‘Hey, do you mind if we work together? I'm Seminole from Oklahoma. My name is Sterlin Harjo.’ So I brought them down here to Florida. Nobody really heard of them.”

At the time, Harjo was working with The 1491s, an Oklahoma comedy troupe making YouTube videos.

“But then I noticed the younger crowd, as we would walk through the pow wow,” he said. “They were like, ‘Oh, is that Sterlin Harjo? He’s cool!’”

In 2019, Osceola brought The 1491s to perform. The members are now all over television with shows like “Reservations Dogs” and “Rutherford Falls.”

Branching out

Osceola has broadened his roles in recent years.

In 2020, he was contacted by South Florida filmmaker Jessica Henric, who had a script for a short called, “Don’t Let It In,” based on a Seminole legend of an owl woman shape-shifter. Her name cannot be mentioned or she will come for you.

The story centers on a Seminole woman with generational trauma who awakens the creature. When people start to disappear, she returns to the reservation to find out why.

“I looked at the script that Jessica had done and I changed a little bit of the lingo,” he said, but soon agreed to produce and act in the film.

Henric had a company called Voodoo Pictures, which partnered with FilmGate to begin the production process. A 15-minute version was released to virtual film festivals in 2020.

The short version was so successful that Los Angeles-based Canvas Media Studios provided funding to expand it to feature length, which is in post-production after two weeks of filming on the Big Cypress Reservation. The cast consists of nine Seminole tribal members and two actors from other tribes.

Osceola is in the cast along with Seminoles Aubee Billie, Carradine Billie, Delilah Hall, Doc Native, Daniel Nunez, Maryjane Osceola, Geraldine Osceola and Avadie Live Stewart. Also cast in the film are Taylor Kinequon, Cree/Anishabee, and Beniaren Kane, Hidatsa, Ho-Chunk and Prairie Band Potawatomi.

“At its core, the film is a tale about survival and fighting against the darker sides of life,” Henric told ICT. “That’s something I have done in my own life, and I think most of us can relate.”

The plan is to screen the film at a few festivals for awareness.

“I want to do a private screening with my Seminole Tribe,” Osceola said. “Because it would be awesome to just have the people who are in the film have their family there and say, your auntie is on the screen, your uncle's on the screen. It’s also coming up on Halloween.”

Looking ahead

The next Native Reel Cinema Fest will happen in February during the Seminole fair and pow wow at the Guitar Hotel, featuring hundreds of vendors and big-name entertainment.

And there will be alligator wrestling, with a makeshift sand and water pit set up in the swanky hotel ballroom surrounded by bleacher seating and hosted by Miss Florida Seminole and other tribal notables.

Osceola plans to be in the pit one last time.

“I gotta get back into training again, but that'll be my retirement,” he said.

Training consists of weekly practice out in the Everglades, reconnecting with the powerful beasts and how to read and control their movements.

After that, he’ll focus on screening Native films and hosting movie stars, hopefully with head and fingers intact.

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