BIG CYPRESS — The opening reception for the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s latest exhibit “Alligator Wrestling: Danger. Entertainment. Tradition.” on Jan. 11 drew an impressive crowd.
The lawn behind the museum was packed to capacity with about 150 people eager to learn about the history of alligator wrestling and see it in person.
The afternoon began as attendees enjoyed a catered lunch under the trees and chickees.
Music was provided by Paul Buster, who peppered his set with stories about growing up among nature in Big Cypress. Miss Florida Seminole Durante Blais-Billie conveyed the importance alligator wrestling had on the Tribe.
“The alligator wrestling tradition of the Tribe shows the ingenuity of our ancestors,” said Blais-Billie. “We turned to alligator wrestling and tourism to survive. It has been passed down from generation to generation and is unique to our Tribe. It’s something we are very proud of.”
Moses Jumper, of the snake clan, explained that traditionally, his clan is the one that blesses alligator wrestlers.
Although he tried wrestling as a young teen, he didn’t stick with it. Both of his parents, Moses Sr. and Betty Mae Jumper, wrestled alligators.
Seminoles realized the economic impact gator wrestling could have when tourists used to “throw money” at them as they caught the animals in the wild. They used to eat them and trade the hides with settlers near the coast.
Alligator wrestler Billy Walker, who grew up in the Everglades near Everglades City, shared a bit of history about his chosen avocation.
“We used to catch gators as a food source and kept them alive in pits with turtles,” Walker said. “We didn’t have refrigeration.”
Walker was mentored by Thomas Storm Sr. and started wrestling gators when he was 13 years old.
“Alligators fed us, clothed us, housed us and helped us travel the world,” said Hollywood Board Rep. Gordon Wareham. “Thomas Storm Sr.’s motto was ‘have gator, will travel.'”
Wareham then told the Seminole legend about the alligator and the rabbit. The rabbit wanted to get the best of the gator and got it to admit to its weakness, which the rabbit used against it. The moral of the legend is to be careful who to trust.
“We use stories to tell kids what to be and what not to be,” Wareham said. “During the Seminole wars sometimes there were enemies in our camps who said they were friends. They were really U.S. Army scouts looking for information. It was important then, and still is now, to know who you give information to.”
With that, the grassy area was given over to Walker and an eight-foot alligator named Blackjack. Walker caught it in a Brighton pasture last year, but this was the first time he wrestled it.
Armed with cell phones and cameras, the crowd documented the action as Walker first tired out the feisty gator and then took control of it.
He explained what he was doing as he jumped over the beast, dragged it by the tail, captured it by the snout and ultimately subdued it by sitting on its back.
After the show, attendees posed with a baby alligator and toured the museum.
The interactive exhibit is open through Nov. 29, 2020.