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Ahfachkee kids till land, dig into roots

Ahfachkee ninth-grader Zoey Puente tills a line of edible aloe plants at the school’s Elaponke class garden in Billie Swamp Safari. The garden provides an outdoor classroom environment for learning Seminole culture and the language of the Tribe’s ancestors.
Ahfachkee ninth-grader Zoey Puente tills a line of edible aloe plants at the school’s Elaponke class garden in Billie Swamp Safari. The garden provides an outdoor classroom environment for learning Seminole culture and the language of the Tribe’s ancestors.

BIG CYPRESS — Students from Ahfachkee School culture classes are digging so deep into their roots that they can almost taste it – almost.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon inside the perimeter of a Seminole camp at Billie Swamp Safari, ninth-grader Zoey Puente tilled lines of edible aloe plants while classmates raked dirt around fledgling vegetables in a garden about a dozen rows deep.

Within yards at the Big Cypress attraction’s native camp that also includes cooking, sleeping and work chickees, other teens planted a seedling papaya tree.

In a few short months, the rows of now leafy green plants will yield squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots and other vegetables; the trees will bear tasty fruit; and the teens will be as proficient in their ancestral language as their forefathers were at growing food in the swamp.

“This is Elaponke language class,” Zoey said while wiping sweat from her forehead. “And it makes me want to start my own garden at home.”

Also known as Seminole 1 and Seminole 2 in the Florida Department of Education’s Course Code Directory, Elaponke 1 and Elaponke 2 meet the state’s two credit high school graduation language requirements.

And the garden at Billie Swamp, planted by students and tended by them as needed, provides an outdoor classroom for learning Mikasuki and Seminole culture at the same time.

“Here, we teach the kids about how our ancestors survived when we had nothing and how the plants are used in other ways,” said the school’s traditional preservation program director Jeannette Cypress. “We don’t want them to only know about food they can buy at the store, but about food they can start from seeds and clippings.”

All plants in the Billie Swamp garden started from seeds and cuttings gathered from plants that already flourish at Ahfachkee School garden about 2 miles away.

The campus garden was established by elders as an elective learning opportunity for all grade levels and has been maintained by students and gardening instructor Maxine Gilkes for the past decade.

The garden at Billie Swamp is different, said assistant program director Danielle Jumper-Frye. High school student participation is mandatory as part of Elaponke classes and as a community service benefit.

“At the Billie Swamp garden, kids get higher levels of hands-on experience while learning all the words for everything that has to do with growing plants, gardening and farming. They also get a great break from the classroom,” Jumper-Frye said.

Cypress and Jumper-Frye also use the class to introduce students to interesting plants that most people outside the Tribe would never consider eating.

For instance, the roots of three plants typically used in South Florida home landscaping have been cooked and served as potatoes by Seminoles for generations. One “potato” root, from the decorative elephant ear plant, is especially tasty when roasted and topped with molasses or bacon, Cypress said.

Gilkes said two decorative floral plants, both which grow pretty red blossoms, are used by children to make swamp Kool-Aid: they drop the pedals into glasses of cool water that turns red and sweet.

Wild hibiscus is a perfect example, Cypress said, but as a child she went straight for the “candy” part; Cypress would pluck the flower’s stamen and pop it into her mouth for a quick nectar treat.

Jumper-Frye and Cypress often hike through remote areas of the reservation in search of food plants that were part of Seminole diets long ago. Some plants, such as wild cherry, bananas and strangler plums, have been relocated to Billie Swamp in hopes of reintroducing them into regular use.

Gilkes said today’s teens are always amazed by what they learn in the garden.

“What everyone else thinks is a root at the end of a weed is food and medicine to someone else. The U.S. government threw this land away because they thought it was useless. The Seminole thrive on it – to me, this is holy land,” Gilkes said.

A favorite eye-opening activity is the school’s unofficial annual end-of-harvest student salsa-making contest. To garner interest, students are allowed to dedicate sections of both gardens for salsa fixings that include necessary herbs and spices.

“They can’t believe sometimes how they can take tomato plants, make salsa, then pluck the seeds from compost for the next season’s tomato crop. It’s the cycle of life and the value of life that they are learning because they grow salsa,” Gilkes said.

The garden yield is served up in many recipes.

Some students earn bragging rights from harvest concoctions. Last year high schooler Bradin Jim served up the hottest winning salsa, but classmate Ethan Balentine remains a favorite garden chef for his delicious papaya smoothies.

Franklin Jumper, who has been gardening at Ahfachkee for two years, said the gardening part of Elaponke is plain fun.

“How can a kid not like to be outside playing? And it’s always nice to be able to get fresh food from your own backyard,” Franklin said.