BIG CYPRESS — A public reception for what is deemed a landmark exhibit at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Big Cypress is planned for mid-January. High-ranking officials in fields of anthropology, history, government and education are expected to attend.
“It is probably our most ambitious installation to date,” said Museum Director and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Paul Backhouse.
“Struggle for Survival, 1817-1850” explores tactics used by tribal ancestors in armed resistance against the United States’ eradication of Native Americans from Florida. The show, to run through November 2016, covers years that most Americans view as spanning three separate Seminole Wars but what Seminole Tribe historians know was one long battle against removal and potential extinction.
The reception, featuring food, music and entertainment, is set for Jan. 16.
The exhibit begins in a shadowy entrance amid three-dimensional walls that depict a wetland cypress hammock. Crickets and other creature sounds of the marsh become quickly replaced by sloshing footsteps and an eerie sense of being stalked.
“The display opens in an experiential environment where the viewer gets to feel like they are there. It makes you feel hunted; inside the horror that is about to happen,” said Annette Snapp, the Museum’s operations manager.
Further in, the exhibit showcases weapons and hunting tools used in the resistance, and it exposes superior guerilla warfare techniques used to endure the 50-year defense against Army troops.
A posted timeline illustrates battles, federal actions and Native resistance efforts over the five decades. A letter from early Florida pioneer businessman Jacob Summerlin, also known as King of the Cracker Cow Hunters who witnessed much of the Seminole resistance, attests to Seminole endurance.
Another letter, by ship captain Silas Casey to his wife, notes, “It is almost unaccountable with what obstinarity (sic) they hold out.”
Museum curator of exhibits Rebecca Fell said the letters are indicative of Seminole defiance and fortitude despite constant threats and skirmishes fueled by federal leader Andrew Jackson, who was determined to eliminate all Natives from Florida land. Jackson fought in the First Seminole War and then, as President of the United States, forwarded the Indian Removal Act and ordered the Second Seminole War.
According to the Florida Department of State website under the subtext Seminole Wars, the battles from 1835 through 1842 (dubbed the Second Seminole War) left devastating impacts on the U.S. Army: “The United States spent more than $20 million fighting the Seminoles. The war left more than 1,500 soldiers and uncounted American civilians dead. And the obvious duplicity of the U.S. government’s tactics marred Indian-white relations throughout the country for future generations.”
Exact numbers of Seminoles transplanted or killed are unreliable but a document on display at the exhibit, plucked from the pages of a congressional report, lists government money paid to bounty hunters for the capture or killing of multiple Indians.
“You look at it and see a formal, well-typed, neat columned list and then stop and say, ‘Wait a minute. This is a list of payment for the lives of people,’” Fell said.
The exhibit illustrates the depths that ancestors of many Native Americans in Florida went to in order to survive the onslaught, from silently making camp shelters under the cover of swamp wilderness to using the familiar environment to stage surprise and deadly attacks against the Army.
Fell said several Seminole Tribe historians, including Willie Johns, Moses Jumper Jr. and Pedro Zepeda, contributed to the exhibit by sharing history passed down from family members and private research. All components were officially reviewed before opening.
Another section shows Seminole defiance even as families were loaded like cargo in the last forced removal, via the Grey Cloud steamer from Tampa to New Orleans where they continued on to internment on reserved Oklahoma land.
A small re-creation of the steamer allows guests a place to reflect on the plight. A ship plank then leads to a modern-day message of “hope and survival moving into the future,” Backhouse said.
There, spectators learn Florida’s first people, originally clumped as one group by the Spanish, eventually became the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Miccosukee Tribe of Florida Indians and the Independent Seminoles.
Lee Tiger, of the Miccosukee Tribe, hopes visitors will accept historically proven truths that have gone largely untold. He recalls school history classes from the 1960s that provided one-sided accounts of Florida history and skipped the Seminole story entirely.
“People can bury the truth and for many years they did … I don’t think non-Indians know about the wars against our actual living families with children, aunts, uncles and grandparents. They were not warriors; they were families who had to hide silently under bamboo in the marshes or be killed,” Tiger said. “It was a long, terrible war that should never have happened.”
The recently discovered Buckskin Declaration presented in 1954 to President Dwight D. Eisenhower by Lee Tiger’s father, Buffalo Tiger, of the unrecognized Mikasuki Tribe of the Seminole Nations, caps the exhibit.
On loan to the Museum by the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, it is inscribed on a deer hide, signed by pre-Seminole and Miccosukee Tribe elders, and states that the Florida Natives wished simply to be left alone – with respect, dignity and honor – to live peacefully as they have for generations.
Tiger said his father instigated the declaration in the aftermath of a 10-year federal push (1940-1950) that stripped sovereignty and terminated more than 100 recognized Tribes throughout Indian Country. Around the same time, laws were created that forbid Florida Natives from hunting, fishing and cultivating plant medicine and food on their homeland.
Buffalo Tiger worked with elders and medicine people to interpret the message “eloquently and wisely,” Lee Tiger said.
“Feelings were projected from the Buckskin that were of peace, respect and dignity. They wanted to share with the white men that we were not inferior; they were not inferior; we were just all humans on the Earth,” Lee Tiger said.
Tiger imagined that if his father and other elders had money then, like the Miccosukee and Seminole Tribes have now, they might have paid for a banner large enough to hang over Times Square in Manhattan, New York for all to see.
“Everyone in the world would have read it and the words would not have been hidden away for more than 50 years. But the message is just as important today as yesterday,” Lee Tiger said. “The men who said the words are gone, but their words are alive with the truth, breath, energy and heart of our spirit.”