BIG CYPRESS — The Brighton Reservation’s Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School (PECS) is known for its Creek language immersion program. But it’s also unique for its instruction in traditional Seminole cooking and arts and crafts.

In fact, visitors from Native American schools across the country have traveled to PECS to see how their special programs operate.

The school’s arts and crafts have gotten some additional attention recently with a special showcase at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Big Cypress.

All K-8 PECS students are given classes on traditional Seminole arts and crafts. The program is a hands-on one, and takes place throughout the school year.

On May 21, a group of students and instructors were at the museum for a special reception. Museum officials and the school collaborated on a display of the student’s work. Several pieces were chosen by PECS lead arts and crafts instructor Marilee Johns Ringer. The pieces will be displayed at the museum through Aug. 18.

The pieces represent beadwork, sewing, basket making, doll making, woodcarving and more.

Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School students and instructors gather at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Reservation for a reception May 21. Top row, from left, are April Wright (instructor), Serenity Lara (6th grade), Marilee Johns Ringer (lead instructor), Juanita Billie (5th grade), Carlee Osceola (6th grade), Deanthony Torres (5th grade) and Taylor Johns (instructor). Bottom row, from left, Elainna Fonseca (2nd grade), Stellar King (2nd grade), Khoal Cochran (3rd grade), Tehya Nunez (4th grade) and Waniya Fortner (4th grade). Not all students or teachers involved in the program are pictured. (Photo Damon Scott)

The goal of the program is to educate and help students develop practical skills that enhance their sense of cultural heritage. The hope is they will help keep Seminole traditions alive and well as they grow older.

“Teachers are proud of their student’s accomplishments; students realize the importance of learning everything about their culture, keeping the unconquered spirit alive,” reads part of a dedication sign at the museum display. “The community is proud of the school’s dedication to the students, and encourages them to continue traditional ways by passing these practices along to future generations.”

Group effort

Ringer is quick to point out that her coworkers at PECS should be given a lot of credit for the success of the program – Taylor Johns, April Wright and Denise Welborn.

“They are the backbone that keeps our program going, and each help the children create beautiful pieces,” Ringer said.
Ringer is from the Brighton Reservation and has been at PECS for about eight years – six of those leading the arts and crafts department. Her father is Marty Johns, who runs the Seminole Brighton Casino.

“The students have classes so they can learn their Creek language and then they rotate through my classroom as their arts and crafts class — they get to do all the traditional stuff,” Ringer said.

A variety of arts and crafts were created by students, including dolls and baskets. From left, the items are the works of Saniya Rodiguez, Carlee Osceola, Jrayko Billie, Cheyenne Lara and Serenity Lara. (Photo Damon Scott)

The school has traditional cooking classes where students cook over fire, too – learning about traditional Seminole food.
“They get a little bit of everything. Some kids might not get it at home, [but] they can come to the school and get it and hopefully pass it on,” Ringer said.

Student pride

The projects on display at the museum are all the more impressive when you consider the students are only in arts and crafts class once a week.

Ringer starts choosing the projects that will be featured at the museum early in the year and she knows which pieces will be at the museum by February.

“You have to pick who has the best work ethic and who’s really progressing and moving on,” Ringer said.

She said a lot of the projects that were chosen were from students who were on their second or third creation.

Some students learn to sew and do it from beginning to end, also picking their own colors. They start with patchwork, then do potholders and book bags. Some have made skirts.

Basket makers go from a regular bowl-sized basket to a basket-bottom purse.

Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School fifth-grader Juanita Billie created this beaded jewelry. (Photo Damon Scott)

“We’ll have small [palmetto] dolls and each gets bigger and bigger and they dress them and sew their clothes on them,” Ringer said.

“They took pride in their work so it was really easy to choose,” Ringer said.

Ringer said each grade level is usually represented by two pieces, putting the total at about 16.

Why it matters

Other than a way to feature stellar arts and crafts, the underlying reason for the program is to keep Seminole culture in the forefront of Tribal life, said Ringer.

“It’s not only our language that’s dying, culture is dying with it,” Ringer said. “It’s not really being taught in homes anymore. Grandmas and great grandmas are all sadly passing away and they’re taking all of that knowledge with them. That’s where we step in.”

Ringer said she always hopes that once students leave the program and move on, they’ll keep what they’ve learned alive and thriving.

“It’s exciting because you see some that do take so much pride in it and they’re excited,” she said. “And just to see their faces when they’ve finished a project – they are so happy to see it. That’s what makes it all worth it.”

If you go

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum presentation of “Our Way School: Traditional Arts and Crafts” is on exhibit from May 20 to Aug. 18.

The museum is located on the Big Cypress Reservation at 34725 West Boundary Road in Clewiston. For more information, call (863) 902-1113 or go to ahtahthiki.com.

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