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Crafters return to Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum village

Pedro Zepeda teaches his son Kyle the finer points of carving a bow from a piece of guava wood. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

BIG CYPRESS — Seminole artisans have returned to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum village, where they bring history to life through their arts and crafts.

For 18 months, the village’s chickees remained empty as the community and the world dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic. The museum reopened Aug. 21.

The artists, who each have their own chickee in which to work, create beadwork, sweetgrass baskets, patchwork and carved objects while they are there.

Crafter Judy Jim has created beaded jewelry for two years in the village. Before that, she worked in the Big Cypress culture department.

“It’s quiet out here and I enjoy the fresh air,” Jim said.

A sofkee ladle carved by Pedro Zepeda is displayed along with a small model of a canoe and some stickball sticks. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Woodcarver and canoe maker Pedro Zepeda has been working in the village for a few years and was glad to be back after the long hiatus. On Sept. 15, he brought his son Kyle, 10, to work on a bow made from freshly cut wood from a guava tree.

“It’s best to carve while the wood is green,” Zepeda said. “I enjoy taking something from the woods and making a usable object or some sort of art from it.”

Kyle may not be a seasoned carver, but he is well on his way. He started carving at age 3 and over the years has learned to safely use the tools one at a time.

Kyle Zepeda shows his handmade, child-sized hatchet in his father, Pedro Zepeda’s, chickee at the crafters village. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

“It’s fun,” Kyle said. “It’s like playing an instrument or anything else. You don’t know why you like it; you just like it.”
Kyle has some child sized tools with edges as sharp as adult tools. He has a drawknife, hatchet, adz, bottom gouge and a pocket knife all handmade by a North Carolina blacksmith. He said he feels happy and proud when he finishes a project.

“After I learn a tool, it kind of comes naturally once you learn to use it well,” Kyle said. “But you do cut yourself sometimes.”

The cuts didn’t seem to deter Kyle, who enthusiastically worked on the bow with guidance from his father.

“Keep the tool level,” Zepeda said as he showed his son how to smooth the wood evenly.

Zepeda appreciates the freedom to create whatever he wants and enjoys interacting with museum visitors.

“When I’m working on a canoe, people are surprised to see such a big statement piece,” he said. “It’s rare to see someone make a canoe by hand.”

It’s common for museum guests to share their experiences about other places they’ve traveled to, so Zepeda can usually find a way to relate to them.

“We’re not the only ones to make dugout canoes, it’s been done all over the world,” he said.

Judy Jim shows some of her beadwork at the village. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Canoe making is a passion for Zepeda and he started a private Facebook page for other canoe makers, where they share knowledge and historic photos. There are a few older canoes on display in the village, including one made about 20 years ago by Henry John Billie and two unfinished ones by Victor Billie.

Zepeda also displays other carvings in his village chickee including sofkee ladles, small models of dugout canoes and stickball sticks. He also has a large model of a dugout canoe with a sprit sail on it.

“Using a sail on a canoe was done into the 1940s,” Zepeda explained. “The paddle was used as a rudder. I’d like to revive it.”

Zepeda likes to educate visitors and relates the history and uses of the objects when they come to his chickee.

“Sofkee ladles are traditionally made from cypress to stir the sofkee and drink from,” he said. “People used to sit around the pot and drink from their own ladles. They are pointed at the end so you could drink right out of it.”

The village crafters are at work Monday through Friday from about 8:15 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a lunch break around noon.

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s crafters village includes a cooking chickee, among others. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
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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 beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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