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Daniel Tommie presents Seminole culture to Audubon Society

Daniel Tommie gives a presentation May 10 to the Hendry-Glades chapter of the Audubon Society. (Courtesy image)

“If you live within the laws of nature, you will have all you need,” Daniel Tommie told the Hendry-Glades chapter of the National Audubon Society.

Nature and Tommie’s passion for Seminole culture were the underlying themes of an online presentation May 10, during which he shared his knowledge of the role of stories, birds and dugout canoes in traditional Seminole culture.

Tommie grew up in his Miccosukee grandparents’ camp in what is now the Everglades National Park. His grandfather carried the medicine bundle, so people always came into their camp. His grandmother made sure everyone had something to eat, including turtle, ibis and deer.

“I long for that love, unity and family,” Tommie said. “That keeps me going. We are all struggling through the pandemic. The breath maker has been so good to me and my ancestors. During times of struggle and sacrifice and survival, we want learn and do what’s best for our people. We are on earth for a fraction of a second and are just one little speck in the vastness of the universe. It makes me humble.”

Tommie told about a painting by Guy LaBree titled “Sacrifice,” which shows a scene during the Seminole Wars of a young mother making the ultimate sacrifice to save her family. She smothered her baby so the nearby soldiers wouldn’t find them as they hid in the Everglades. Seeing the painting left an indelible mark on him.

“That image is forever placed in my heart and my mind,” Tommie said. “That baby had to be sacrificed so the whole family could survive. If it wasn’t for that baby, I might not be here. That keeps me going in the direction I believe I am supposed to be going.”

Tommie worked at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum before the pandemic as a traditional interpretive coordinator and built an authentic hunting camp, complete with pelts. While he was there, he began carving dugout canoes to keep that tradition alive. He has been carving for about four years.

Canoes are made from cypress trees and vary in size, depending on its function. Larger ones were for transporting the family or for commerce. Smaller ones were for hunting and gigging. During the Seminole Wars, Abiaka and his warriors used small canoes to escape after leading U.S. soldiers into a trap during the battle of Okeechobee.

“I don’t consider myself an artist,” he said. “I just do what’s been done for thousands of years. I’m a canoe builder now, nothing can stop me.”

Surrounded by canoes, Tommie showed some early tools the Calusa used to carve their canoes. One had a piece of a conch shell attached to part of a tree branch, another was a complete conch shell tied to a larger branch. Both were adzes, which are ancient tools with the blade perpendicular to the handle instead of parallel to it. The blade of a modern adze is made from metal.

“The one with the piece of shell will help you clear a canoe,” Tommie said. “It’s not sharp, but it can do the job. The one with the large conch shell will cut down a tree.”

Tommie showed some of the canoes he has carved over the last few years, one is about 27 feet long. He likes to give the canoes away and gave one to the senior center in Big Cypress, where he lives.

“If you have a passion for it, it isn’t work,” he said.

Tommie told a few traditional stories about the birds he has seen while outside carving. One was about a woodpecker who tricked termites to leave the safety inside the tree by telling them he wouldn’t eat them. Of course, the bird feasted when the termites believed him.

“There are a lot of hawks around here,” Tommie said. “You can use them if you are hunting because they are usually looking for something to eat. Eagles fly the highest and take our prayers since he gets closest to the creator. Anhingas are called “butt washers” since they fly so close to the water.”

The stories are Seminole legends he has heard all his life, many told by his grandfather, who he often thinks of while he is carving.

“We need to hold those memories and cherish them,” Tommie said. “My grandfather told me the only time you should be looking down on somebody is when you are helping him up. I’m so blessed I had that from him.”

Tommie explained the matrilineal society of the Seminoles and that the mother gives the clan to her children.

“When the time was right for the clans to emerge out of the ground, the panther was first in line, wind was second and bird was third,” Tommie said. “But panther couldn’t get his head through the crack in the ground, so wind made it bigger and bird made it wider. These three clans are as close as they can be.”

Language is important in Seminole culture because it isn’t just about sharing information.

“Language is vital to the experience of an oral story,” Tommie explained. “The clouds, the moods, the expressions are all described in detail. You can only get that through the native tongue. I was blessed to get that from my grandparents.”

During a question and answer period after the presentation, a participant asked if young people are interested in learning Seminole traditions and crafts.

“I think so,” Tommie said. “Be the change you want to see. That’s what I’m doing, it’s my job to plant a seed with them. Before the pandemic, I had a couple of kids at the museum who wanted to learn to use the adze. I hope that will be resparked after the pandemic and they give it a shot.”

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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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