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American Indian Arts Celebration draws record-setting crowd

BIG CYPRESS — It was easy to see that the 20th annual American Indian Arts Celebration was a success by expressions of the event’s 1,679 visitors as they experienced Native American culture first-hand.

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum festival, held Nov. 3 and 4 in Big Cypress, drew record crowds and featured a variety of activities that focused on Native American arts, crafts, dance, storytelling, music and food. A daily Billie Swamp Safari wildlife show and alligator wrestling provided a few thrills and ensured there was something for everyone to enjoy.

“This was one of the most exciting AIAC events we’ve had,” said Carrie Dilley, visitor services and development manager. “Everyone, from vendors to Tribal members to visitors, had smiles on their faces.”

Bobby Henry led Tribal members and visitors in a friendship dance to kick off each day. Entertainment in the main tent included interactive performances by the Native Pride dancers from Minnesota, a demonstration of martial arts used in the Seminole Wars, a patchwork fashion show and music. A parade of IBEX puppets depicting endangered Florida animals was featured for the first time on Saturday.

Another new addition to the AIAC this year was an area filled with demonstrators who gave visitors insight into the cultural life of the Tribe. Guests sampled lapalle and sofkee made by Geraldine Osceola over an open fire in the cooking chickee. Nearby, Billy Walker transformed swamp cabbage from a tree stump into a delectable dish and shared it with attendees sporting healthy appetites.
“A lot of visitors flocked to the demonstration area,” Dilley said. “The demonstrators were all happy to share the culture that way.”

Other demonstrations were archery, beading, carving, spear making and pens turned from local wood. Sam Tommie, Daniel Tommie, Pedro Zepeda and other tribal members shared their knowledge and experience with anyone who listened.

On Friday, students from Ahfachkee and other schools in the area, including a group of home schooled high schoolers from West Palm Beach, explored AIAC.

“We had no idea what this was, it was a surprise trip,” said Monique Blanchette, 16, of West Palm Beach as they enjoyed Indian burgers. “We were aware of the Seminoles, but didn’t know much about them.”

“We’re learning a lot here,” added Ender Fluegge, 15. “It’s a nice culture and it’s interesting to see how they do things. It seems more calm than normal life.”

Ahfachkee students are familiar with the museum, which displays an annual exhibit of student-made art in its galleries. Many of the kids just wanted to shop; there was an abundance of vendors from which to choose and some had plenty of dollar items for sale.

“It’s great to buy stuff and it’s cool that people are here,” said second-grader Mohayla Billie, 7. “It tells us that other people are inspired and want to visit our culture and see the things we create.”

Seminoles weren’t the only Tribe represented at the celebration. In the show tent, dancer Larry Yazzie, of the Meskwaki Nation of Tama, Iowa, performed the eagle dance and Selena Jourdain, of the Red Lake Ojibwe tribe of Minnesota did a jingle dance before they led the crowd in a circle dance inside the tent.

David Graham, Ka Malinalli and their daughter Isabela Graham of Kissimmee planned a road trip through the state just to attend AIAC. The family tasted sofkee and lapalle and was delighted with what Osceola created in the cooking chickee. Malinalli was impressed with how the Seminoles lived off the land in nature and how it translated into homesteading.

“The three sisters garden [beans, squash and corn] has spread worldwide and has fancy names attached to it now,” Malinalli said. “But it’s an ancient tradition. I’d like to see people talk to their grandchildren about Native Americans’ contributions.”

“Their traditions and how they were taught and raised is pretty interesting,” said Isabela, 12. “I could imagine living that way.”

Some of the youth who are living that tradition in Big Cypress were proud to show off the culture at AIAC.

“It’s a beneficial thing because it brings awareness of who we are and to Native Americans as a whole,” said Ahfachkee 11th-grader Mya Cypress, 16. “We want them to know we are people equal to them, we have our own way of doing things and we are still here.”

Eighth-grader Marina Garcia had similar feelings about all the visitors.

“It feels pretty good for people to know what we’re doing,” said Marina, 14. “They never knew Native Americans had all this and it’s cool that they came to check it out.”

Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at

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