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Foreign exchange students learn about first Americans

Big Cypress Culture Department representative Victor Billie, right, shows Italian foreign exchange students and teens from Archbishop McCarthy High School a Seminole canoe in the making Sept. 3 during a tour of Billie Swamp Safari on the Big Cypress Reservation. Seminole Tribe members John Osceola, 16, who is a junior at McCarthy, and John’s father, Gem Osceola, helped organize the excursion.
Big Cypress Culture Department representative Victor Billie, right, shows Italian foreign exchange students and teens from Archbishop McCarthy High School a Seminole canoe in the making Sept. 3 during a tour of Billie Swamp Safari on the Big Cypress Reservation. Seminole Tribe members John Osceola, 16, who is a junior at McCarthy, and John’s father, Gem Osceola, helped organize the excursion.

BIG CYPRESS — Foreign exchange students from Italy who visited the United States in early September learned more than they expected after a day-long educational adventure at Billie Swamp Safari.

“I had no idea that when we would tour America we would come here. I never made the connection that the first people here were not what you call ‘American,’” said Andrea Cusumano, 17, of the Italian high school Liceo Scientifico Galileo Galilei in Palermo, Sicily.

The 28 foreign exchange students were hosted in South Florida by Archbishop McCarthy High School in Southwest Ranches and on the Big Cypress Reservation attraction by Seminole Tribe members John Osceola, 16, who is a junior at McCarthy, and John’s father, Gem Osceola.

McCarthy principal Richard P. Jean said he chose the field trip to Billie Swamp because he wanted the Italian students to see an authentic slice of Florida history.

“When we took McCarthy students last year to Palermo for cultural exchange, there was so much history to see everywhere we looked. But where can we go at home for real history? Where can kids ask someone, ‘How long have you been here,’ and the answer is, ‘Forever,’” Jean said.

John, who lives in Davie, said he hoped the Italian students and his McCarthy classmates who attended the outing would garner appreciation for the indigenous culture his family has known for generations.

“I am honored that they came out here to experience the culture that is native to Florida,” he said. “It’s the true culture. Even though I live in the United States, the reservations have always influenced who I am.”

John said most of his immediate family lives on the Hollywood Reservation.

Gem Osceola said Big Cypress Councilman Cicero Osceola helped arrange the excursion that included a swamp buggy ride through wild land, airboat spree through marsh and sawgrass, alligator wrestling exhibition and tour of a replica Seminole village.

Victor Billie, a representative from the Big Cypress Culture Department, guided students through the chickee camp that included chickees for sleeping, cooking and canoe carving. They stopped to admire and purchase beaded bracelets, necklaces and other jewelry fashioned by Linda Beletso and her daughters Lorraine Posado and Lenora Roberts.

Throughout the camp tour, Billie shared bits of the Tribe’s history and revealed how some of the culture has evolved because of circumstance. For instance, prior to European occupation, Seminoles carved canoes with rounded ends out of 50- to 60-foot-tall, very thick cypress trees, Billie said. But when the Seminole learned from the Spanish that pointed ends on the stern and bow would cut easier through sawgrass swamp, they altered their own tradition.

In the cooking chickee, a small army of women from the Immokalee Culture Department served up tastes of corn sofkee, Indian stew made of fatty beef and naturally sweet pumpkin frybread.

“Our fire is always burning so we say our village is alive. The cooking chickee is always in the middle of the camp, and the fire is always made of four logs,” Billie told the group. “In the past days, we would eat anything wild like deer and boar, but now, like you, some of the Tribe goes to Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

Gem Osceola said the visit gave him pause to think about “then and now.”

“Seeing the culture alive here and knowing how the Seminole lived and some still do makes me see how much has changed between me and [Victor] even though we are only one generation apart,” he said.

McCarthy students Giovanna Raffa, 16, and her sister Isabella Raffa, 15, admitted they were awed by the tour.

“I kept imagining how the Indians survived here, how they made the canoes, cooked at the fire and dealt with alligators,” Isabella said.

“I thought about Victor Billie’s grandfather and the details of what his life must have been,” Giovanna said.

 

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