Museum Opens Window on Florida's Seminole Indians

After being interpreted by outsiders for too long, the Seminole tribe of Florida has found its voice. The message is loud and clear: We're here, and we're proud of what we have accomplished.

The tribe celebrated its 40th anniversary of federal recognition by opening the $2 million Ah-Tha-Thi-Ki Museum. The huge new building preserves Seminole culture and history amid 60 acres of cypress swamp on the Big Cypress Reservation, 40 miles west of Fort Lauderdale and one of the tribe's six reservations.

Profits from the tribe's bingo halls and casinos have primarily funded the endeavor; $400,000 came from the state of Florida.

The museum, which opened in August, has prevailed through the failure of repeated attempts to secure grants. Tribal Council Chairman James Billie attributes this lack of support to the government's grudge against his people, the "unconquered Seminoles" - the descendants of Creek Indians who in the 1600s were gradually pushed down from Georgia into Spanish Florida, where they took in runaway slaves, much to the ire of the United States.

The culture transported over centuries and strained through the Seminoles' unsettled wartime existence includes language, traditional ceremonies like the annual Green Corn Dance, and handmade patchwork clothing. The museum also includes a two-year loan of Seminole artifacts from the Smithsonian Institution.

"The older people are the ones that really want to keep the language and culture going," says Merrylynn Waggerby, a resident of the Big Cypress Reservation.

Hence the push for a museum to preserve the Seminole legacy. "We need to learn about our culture," says teenager Mercedes Osceola, who was dressed for the occasion in a full-length patchwork skirt and matching blouse. "At home we don't live it, so they teach us."

One simmering dispute, however, involves Seminole sovereignty and gaming rights, which the state of Florida wants to curb. Recently, the tribe launched an advertising campaign about its citrus and ranching industries, environmentalism, and the fact that it paid more than $3.5 million in federal payroll taxes last year. The museum enhances this effort by explaining the traditionally insular Seminoles and their role in Florida's history.

Its columns and pitched roof are reminiscent of the traditional palm-thatched Seminole dwellings called "chickee" huts. An introductory film with five different camera angles splashing across five screens gives a panoramic view of Seminole history.

After the film, the visitor follows a trail through different scenes from traditional Seminole life. Costumed mannequins are posed as hunters, dancers, and participants in daily camp activities such as cooking and poling through the Everglades in a dugout canoe.

The most spectacular exhibit sweeps through a large hall in which the sacred Green Corn Dance is performed. Although other buildings and exhibits are still in the planning stages, a mile-long boardwalk already circles through the beautiful cypress swamp in back of the museum. A ceremonial grounds for dancing has been built, and there is a demonstration camp of two chickees where costumed Seminole women cook traditional food for museum visitors.

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