A newly released documentary short examines the complex and colorful history of the Seminole Tribe and its relationship to the alligators of the Everglades.
The New Yorker magazine is the thrust behind “Halpate” – which means alligator in the Mikasuki language. (The Seminoles and Miccosukee are culturally connected).
The 14-minute film was shot primarily in the Big Cypress Reservation last year. It is also interspersed with several archival clips. Native American filmmakers Adam Khalil and Adam Piron are co-directors on the project.
The film notes that the Seminole Tribe once relied on alligators for survival – for food during the Seminole Wars when the U.S. government was pushing them ever deeper into the Everglades.
The relationship to alligators began to transform decades later when South Florida tourists would throw money at Seminoles from their car windows as they were hunting alligators near roadsides. The tourists thought what was happening was for show.
White landowners later brought alligator wrestling to their properties and exploited Seminoles, paying them next to nothing for their efforts that were often very dangerous. The wrestlers in the film describe it as a time when seeing Indians “do their thing” was considered “romantic” – whether it be
wrestling alligators, creating arts and crafts or dancing at pow wows.
For the Seminole Tribe, the first in the U.S. to successfully venture into Indian gaming, alligator wrestling would be brought under their control, at their own sites, generating their own revenues.
“But alligators aren’t just moneymakers,” states an accompanying article in the New Yorker. “What started as a means of sustenance has become a cultural touchstone – what was once a form of exploitation transformed into tradition.”
The tradition, the film notes, is not one that has attracted a lot of Seminole youths. Indeed, it’s mostly non-tribal people taking it up – through organizations like the Freestyle Alligator Wrestling Competition that was
launched in 2009.
Seminole alligator wrestlers who are featured in the film include Billy Walker, Everett Osceola, James Holt, Clinton Holt and Tre Burton. Osceola is also one of the film’s producers.
In the case of Clinton Holt, the oftentimes suspenseful tone of the film takes hold when it shows an incident in 2011. It was when an alligator bit Holt on the head during a live wrestling demonstration. Holt tells the story of being in the alligator’s grasp, “listening to my skull crack,” he says.
The New Yorker article: “How Florida’s Seminole Tribe Transformed Alligator Wrestling Into a Symbol of Independence,” is available here. The documentary can be viewed on the New Yorker site, or via YouTube by searching “Halpate documentary.”