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Fun, culture, unity highlight Seminole Tribe’s return to Camp Kulaqua

A group of enthusiastic campers from the Seminole Tribe cheer after members of the Seminole Fire Rescue scaled a tall wall without the help of a ladder during the tribe’s week at Camp Kulaqua in High Springs, Florida, (Beverly Bidney photo)

HIGH SPRINGS, Fla. – Nearly 200 kids from the Seminole Tribe spent a week at Camp Kulaqua where they experienced a classic rite of childhood: learning to work, play and live together at camp with their peers.

Tribal youth ages 7 to 17 returned to the camp in High Springs – about 20 miles northwest of Gainesville – from July 31 to Aug. 5. The camp was last held in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic shut down most activities.

The youngsters lived in cabins with kids their own age. Along the way, they made new friends and challenged themselves in a variety of activities during the fun-filled week.

In addition to floating down the Ichetucknee River, zip lining high above trees and riding horses for the first time, there was more to the camp than just fun and games. It was a time for the kids to make memories and perhaps learn something new about themselves. For some kids, it was the first time they had been away from their families.

“This is a huge character-building time,” said Suzanne Davis, the tribe’s Integrative Health director. “They get to know who they are on their own, sometimes for the first time.”

Hollywood Community Culture Center manager Bobby Frank teaches teen boys how to use the tools to construct a model chickee. (Beverly Bidney photo)

The kids’ busy schedules started with a daily walk before breakfast and ended with lights out at 10 p.m. In between, activities included maneuvering a low ropes course, where they learned to work together to achieve a goal; being launched from the infamous giant inflatable blob at the camp’s Hornsby Spring; driving go carts; drifting on a lazy river; zooming down a water slide; battling the swells in a wave pool; competing in a boxcar derby; playing kickball; and participating in the “Wacky Seminole Sports Challenge.”

Many Seminole kids met for the first time. Each cabin housed kids from different reservations.

“We want them to have fun and get to know each other,” said camp director and Big Cypress Recreation Department site manager Cathy Cypress. “I want them to have good memories and pass them on to their kids.”

Activities in groups were geared toward helping the kids’ growth now and in the future.

“This is where they learn teamwork, collaboration and acceptance. They can use those skills all through life. We hope they each leave here a better person,” Cypress said.

Carlise Bermudez, 18, worked as a junior counselor for a group of 12-year-old girls from Brighton, Immokalee and Tampa who didn’t know each other before attending camp.

“They are an interesting group,” said Bermudez, from Immokalee. “They’re all different and still figuring out who they are. It’s fun at night to see how they talk together. They all interact easily with each other.”

Teamwork helped this camper walk across a void on a balancing board. (Beverly BIdney photo)

Activities

At Kulaqua’s stables, a group of 24 girls watched a video about horses and waited patiently to mount one for a trail ride through part of the 600-acre camp. For some, such as Dalvina Buster, 9,  it was their first time on a horse. She rode a horse named Amigo.

“I almost fell off, but I caught myself,” said Buster, from Hollywood. “Amigo stopped for me. He’s a really cool horse.”

A group of 24 girls mounted horses and went on a trail ride through woods at Camp Kulaqua. (Beverly Bidney photos)

Those who mustered the courage to ride the zip line were rewarded with a close-up view of the tree canopy as they passed over a creek to the landing area on the other side.

The blob was the most popular feature at Hornsby Spring. One camper waited on the large inflatable as another jumped onto it, launching the first camper high into the air and into the crystal clear, 72-degree spring.

Culture, educational and wellness activities were part of the daily schedule.

Girls culture classes included sewing and beading while boys made model chickees and learned to carve using bars of soap. Culture Department staff from every reservation helped the young Seminoles learn the skills properly.

After completing her first row of patchwork, Arhinna Rodriguez, 12, of Immokalee, was pleased with it.

“Sometimes I thought it would be crooked, but it’s not,” Rodriguez said with a smile.

Aniyah Billie hangs onto a rope as she swings across a pond while filling a bucket with water. The tricky task was part of the low ropes course. (Beverly BIdney photo)

Presentations

During a Health and Human Services Department presentation after dinner, Ernie Tsosie (Navajo) – a comedian, actor and motivational speaker – spoke to the campers about the importance of culture in health and wellness as he entertained the group with a slide show and anecdotes from his career. Then he got to the point.

“Culture is comprised of values, beliefs, behaviors and material objects that together form a people or way of life. As Indigenous people, you are unique. Having pride in that is healthy for our spirit,” said Tsosie, whose screen credits include “Better Call Saul” and “Longmire.”

He stressed the importance of language. For example, he said Native American language saved the world during World War II thanks to code talkers from tribes. They used their Native language to send secret messages for the Allied forces.  

“Culture gives you an identity and a sense of belonging,” Tsosie said. “It affects all aspects of health and wellness spiritually, physically, mentally and socially.”

Kanyia Lee, left, and Spirit Johnson work on beading during a culture class. (Beverly Bidney photo)

The Center for Behavioral Health gave separate presentations about bullying, one for the 7 to 11 age group and another for 12 to 17.

“One day you may find yourself being bullied,” said Salina Dorgan, Brighton Recreation Department site manager. “Find someone you can trust and talk to. Tell the Elders in your family. They are always there to help. This is very important. You have to be serious about it. We can get you help and be your support system.”

CBH therapist Valerie Kline echoed Dorgan’s advice.

“Elders are wise, they know everything,” Kline said. “They are the ones you need to go to. But we are also here to help you; we’ve been through everything you are going through.”

Kline encouraged the teens to be kind and respect each other. She led the kids in role playing scenarios and answered their questions.

Friendships

As camp progressed, campers became more comfortable with each other, which led to good-natured teasing. A group of young teens described their relationship.

“Everybody’s annoying in their own way, but they’re all cool,” said Thelma Tigertail, 13, from Big Cypress.

“We have fun with each other and know how to get along,” added Remey Rodriguez, 13, from Immokalee.

From left, new friends Jaelee Weimann, Dylan Jones, Thomas Johnson, Sahara Robbins and Asah Jumper pose with their tubes after floating down the Ichetucknee River. (Beverly Bidney photo)

The “Wacky Seminole Sports Challenge” tested the older campers in the slip and run, paddleless canoe relay, water balloon battleship, gummy bear picnic and kajabe can-can. The events pitted teams of teens against each other in friendly competition.

After the games, a group of boys talked about what it was like to make new friends.

“They are like all rez kids,” said Dyami Koenes, 16, from Big Cypress. “Every rez kid is the same.”

“Camp is a good place to be,” added Taven Edwards, 13, from Big Cypress.

While concentrating on beading, Kanyia Lee shared some thoughts on her first camp experience.

“It’s fun. There are multiple activities you can do to keep busy all day,” said Lee, 12, from Tampa. “It’s cool that you get to meet your other family.”

A summertime rainstorm kept the campers in the cafeteria for hours. They particated in a game of “Simon Says” with Preschool director Thommy Doud serving as the host. At the end, only two avoided elimination from the game: Kenneth Frank and Gia Garcia. Doud couldn’t fool either one with any of his antics or word play so he declared a tie. The room erupted in cheers for the winners, whose reward was a place at the front of the line for breakfast the next morning.

At left, Preschool director Thommy Doud leads a game of “Simon Says” for the last two campers standing: Kenneth Frank and Gia Garcia. They bested the other 193 kids at camp to earn the shared win. (Beverly Bidney photo)

The second to last day of camp included a float on the Ichetucknee River on tubes and rafts. Lifeguards, counselors and staff accompanied the large group.

A group from Big Cypress, Brighton, Hollywood and Tampa vowed to continue their friendships throughout the year.

“You don’t get as close to kids at school as you do here at camp,” said Jaelee Weimann, 12, from Brighton.

“Kids here are basically family,” added Thomas Johnson, 14, from Tampa.

The boxcar derby and s’mores over a campfire were held after dinner that evening.

The next day campers loaded buses and headed back to the reservations,

“We want the kids to have fun, enjoy each other’s company and interact with kids from other reservations,” Dorgan said. “They need to learn to get along and bond now since they are the future of the tribe. As future leaders, they will have that bond to keep the tribe going.

Dalina Rodriguez, in front, and Jakiya Johns decorate their boxcar. (Beverly Bidney photo)
Daniel Tommie, second from left, helps a camper add decorations to their bunk’s boxcar. (Beverly Bidney photo)
Brighton Culture instructor Johnnie Jones helps some younger boys make their model chickees. (Beverly Bidney photo)
Ollie Balentine, left, and Stormy Hernandez paint rocks during a Culture class, which included beading and painting. (Beverly Bidney photo)
Arhinna Rodriguez proudly displays the first patchwork she ever made during a Culture sewing class. (Beverly Bidney photo)
Hollywood Culture instructor Cassandra Jones watches as Skyla Mota prepares the sewing machine for the next step in making a row of patchwork. (Beverly Bidney photo)
Hollywood Culture instructor Shannon Gopher teaches Jessica Yzaguirre how to sew patchwork. (Beverly Bidney photo)
Finding gummy bears in a plate of whipped cream, without using hands, was the challenge in the Wacky Seminole Sports Challenge. Here Madison Martinez searches for the gummies as Talen Jumper, in rear, looks on. (Beverly Bidney photo)
Kids compete to see who is the last one standing during the kajabe can can during the “Wacky Seminole Sports Challenge.” The goal is to avoid touching the garbage cans in the center while being pulled by the opposing team members. (Beverly Bidney photo)
Campers embark on an hours-long journey down the Ichetucknee River propelled by nothing but the current. (Beverly Bidney photo)
These girls stayed together on the Ichetucknee River and do so as they reach the end of the trip at the landing area. (Beverly BIdney photo)
An impromptu splash fest broke out in Hornsby Spring between this group of teenage campers. (Beverly Bidney photo)
A camper enjoys the view from the top of the trees as she crossed a stream via zipline. (Beverly Bidney photo)
Model chickees made by the 12 to 17 year old campers are on display as the younger campers work on their popsicle stick chickees. (Beverly Bidney photo)
A team of two boys use nothing but their hands to paddle the canoe to the bandana on the purple noodle during the “Wacky Seminole Sports Challenge’s” paddleless canoe relay in Camp Kulaqua’s Hornsby Spring. (Beverly Bidney photo)
Kids spent time in the cafeteria designing and building “vehicles” for the boxcar derby, which was postponed a day due to inclement weather. Azaria Perez stands inside the human powered boxcar as finishing touches are put on the straps. (Beverly Bidney photo)
After splashing down from the blob, campers swam to the dock in the light reflected off the colorful inflatable. (Beverly Bidney photo)
The blob was the most popular place in Camp Kulaqua’s Hornsby Spring. Campers waited their turn to get launched into the air and splash down in the 72 degree water below. (Beverly Bidney photo)
The blob was the most popular place in Camp Kulaqua’s Hornsby Spring. Campers waited their turn to get launched into the air and splash down in the 72 degree water below. (Beverly Bidney photo)
The blob was the most popular place in Camp Kulaqua’s Hornsby Spring. Campers waited their turn to get launched into the air and splash down in the 72 degree water below. (Beverly Bidney photo)
The blob was the most popular place in Camp Kulaqua’s Hornsby Spring. Campers waited their turn to get launched into the air and splash down in the 72 degree water below. (Beverly Bidney photo)

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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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