BIG CYPRESS — A record crowd of nearly 2,500 reveled in the sights and sounds of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s 21st annual American Indian Arts Celebration.

Even with the snout of a live alligator in her grasp, Miss Florida Seminole Cheyenne Kippenberger still has the poise to smile Nov. 2 during the American Indian Arts Celebration on the Big Cypress Reservation. (Courtesy photo)

Attendees from as far away as Germany and as close as the Big Cypress Reservation took in the art, crafts, music, dance, gator wrestling and food Nov. 2 and Nov. 3. Seminole artists displayed and sold traditional patchwork, beadwork, carvings and more to customers young and old.

“It’s nice to see such a big turnout,” said Big Cypress Councilman Mondo Tiger.

“It was the highest turnout we ever had,” said Carrie Dilley, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki’s visitor services and development manager. “We had about 600 more than our second highest year in 2015.”

About 1,000 students from Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Collier counties enjoyed all the AIAC had to offer on the first day. The energetic students filled the main tent for the friendship dance, the Minnesota-based Native Pride dancers’ demonstration and Billy Walker’s act of bravery as he wrestled a gator into submission.

The morning began with the friendship dance led by Bobby Henry, who said the dance could last up to a couple of hours but he would keep it much shorter. Henry, Miss Florida Seminole Cheyenne Kippenberger, Jr. Miss Florida Seminole Allegra Billie and Tribal members led hundreds of students in ever-tighter spirals in the tent to the steady beat of Henry’s song.

Native Pride dancer Larry Yazzie, Meskwaki, performed the eagle dance. With his enormous eagle regalia, Yazzie simulated the moves of an eagle in flight and landing. Some of the students mimicked his moves in the stands and sidelines of the tent. Dancer Arlan Whitebreast, Meskwaki, demonstrated the grass dance. Later, the two men led a crowd of students in a dance lesson, complete with song and drum. The kids tried out the dance steps with great enthusiasm.

Longtime alligator wrestler Billy Walker shows the gaping mouth of an alligator during a demonstration in front of students Nov. 2 at the AIAC. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

When Walker’s gator wrestling demonstration was announced, the tent filled to capacity quickly but plenty of visitors who couldn’t find a seat stood on the periphery of the tent and the stage. Walker gave a brief history lesson about how alligator wrestling became important to Tribal members in the early part of the 20th century. They used to eat alligators and sell the hides, but when tourists started watching the process of capturing a gator, it became an important source of income.

“We used to wrestle gators to make a living all through the state,” said Walker, who started wrestling alligators at 12 years old. “I hold on to my roots and make bridges into the new world. I stay true to who I am.”

Students from Sheridan Hills Christian School in Hollywood watch Pedro Zepeda demonstrate how to carve a cypress canoe. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Virgil Doctor donated some of his late mother Minnie Doctor’s traditional dolls to the museum; she passed away in June at age 91.

“She used to make these as souvenirs and that’s how we ate,” Doctor said. “Tribal members have these in their homes; they respect these dolls. My mother was one of the best doll makers in the Tribe and she made them until the day she died. These are very special to me.”

Doctor and family members gathered at the front of the tent to present a large doll to Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki, which traditional interpretation coordinator Daniel Tommie accepted on its behalf.

“It takes a long time to make these dolls,” Tommie said. “These are the real deal; they don’t get more authentic than this. I’m happy to accept it for the museum.”

Plenty of traditional food was available to taste, including fresh cut swamp cabbage prepared by Walker. A demonstration tent featured Tommie and some of carvings, a display of New Zealand indigenous Maori people’s canoes and carvings as well as a canoe being carved by Tribal member Pedro Zepeda.

“It’s good that people from different parts of the world can get a better understanding of us,” said museum volunteer Chandler Demayo. “There are members of other Tribes here, too. I hope they see we all aren’t the same and that every tribe is unique in its own way. But we are all still here; we aren’t just part of history.”

Medicine Man Bobby Henry leads the friendship dance. Nearly 1,000 students from Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Collier counties attended the event hosted by the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Linda Lee Henry and Barbara Henry set up the booth where they sold beads and other traditional arts and crafts during the first day of the American Indian Arts Celebration. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Native Pride dancer Arlan Whitebreast, Meskwaki, teaches students from Renaissance Charter School at West Palm Beach how to do the grass dance during the first day of the AIAC. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Virgil Doctor, seated, presents a traditional Seminole doll made by his mother Minnie Doctor to Daniel Tommie of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum during the American Indian Arts Celebration Nov. 2 on the Big Cypress Reservation. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
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