LAKELAND — The highlight of the four-day Tampa Seminole Cultural Exchange was the all-day and all-night cultural celebration Sept. 19, as Native teachers from several Tribes braved a rainy Florida day on the Lakeland property to dance, tell stories, instruct, eat, play stickball and share the precious culture that connects them all as Creek Seminole American Indians.
In Lakeland, where the Seminole Tribe of Florida owns 900 acres just north of Interstate 4 in Polk County, Natives of all ages participated in a jamboree of unique traditions.
“This was all for education and fun,” said Seminole Tribe member Herbert Jim, the Tampa cultural director who organized the event with Creek language expert Marcus Briggs-Cloud and Tampa Reservation Administrator Richard Henry. “My grandmother told me that when we stop our ceremonies and lose our language, we lose our connection with the Creator. She was talking about assimilation, going against our culture, losing it all.”
Prominent teachers and tradition carriers at the cultural exchange included Oklahoma Creeks’ Sam Proctor, Reuben Proctor, Leon Bell, Pat Bell, Marilyn Cloud, Ben Yahola, Tawna Little, Nokos-Afvnoke Cloud, Hemokke Cloud, Patricia Deere, Woxie Deere, Lindsey Little, Pakpvkuce Little, Kococvmpv Little and Patti Hall. From Florida, Mohawk Jerome Rockwell (who was raised in Miccosukee), Pete Osceola Jr. (Miccosukee) and Seminoles Jeanette Cypress and Mary Jene Koenes also participated.
The group’s activities included a dinner at the Tampa Hard Rock Fresh Harvest and a day at the Big Cypress Reservation, where they rode in airboats and swamp buggies, observed traditional alligator wrestling and enjoyed a talk by Pete Osceola Jr.
The day at the Lakeland property began early with introductions by Jim, Henry and Briggs-Cloud. It continued with a demonstration of cultural traditions by Cypress and Koenes, a discussion on cultural laws led by Osceola, a Ribbon Dance by Marilyn Cloud and a talk about food sovereignty by Yahola.
As rain fell, the group gathered beneath a tent to hear Leon Bell tell stories and further discuss cultural laws. A short break in the rain sent a dozen young boys and girls out to the stickball area where Tampa maintenance supervisor Paul Simmons found and replanted a tall tree pole, skinned except for the bush at the top.
When the girls (who can only use their hands during the game) began to dominate the boys (who only use sticks), Joel “JoJo” Frank Jr. grabbed a couple sticks and began whooping and running around waving his paddles in the girls’ faces. When heavy rain returned, the game merely continued.
After dinner, as night came out and the half-moon lit the dance area, Rockwell, beneath his big cowboy hat and holding a redbay twig, began calling and singing as he led the first of more than four hours of dances – some quiet, some wild.
The idea for a cultural exchange was born last year during a Tampa youth campout sponsored by the Seminole Police Department. Jim and Bobby Henry decided to put on a Seminole Stomp Dance for youth.
“Chairman James Billie was in attendance and watched his children take part,” Jim said. “He came to me with the idea of a cultural exchange with our brothers out west, to see what they do and show them what we do.”
The first time such an event took place, according to Jim, was in 1987 when medicine man Sonny Billie traveled to Oklahoma to participate in a Green Corn Dance with Oklahoma Seminoles.
“We got the idea to invite here all the ones who were at that Corn Dance when Sonny went out there,” Jim said.
Most, however, had passed away.
“So we all sat down and came up with a list of people who had great knowledge of cultural traditions and were able to talk about themselves, their Clans, their lineage and what their Tribes were all about,” Jim said. “We came up with some very good teachers. Some had never been on an airplane or traveled very far.”
After a much needed rest, the visitors left for home on Sept. 20.
“This was such a great event,” said Briggs-Cloud, who teaches a language immersion program for Tampa Seminoles. “It was magical.”