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Life in Red Bays: land crabs and baskets

James E. BillieI would like to say, “Thank you,” to Peter Douglas, the tourism manager for Andros Island, for inviting me and my family and staff members Danny Tommie, Paul Backhouse and Pete Gallagher to the Crab Festival in Andros Town, recently.

Now, I’ve seen land crabs here in Florida. At certain times of the year they come out in abundance, thousands of them, crossing the roads, yards and parking lots in the Dania, Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood areas. They were just land crabs so for some odd reason I thought they were inedible. In fact, they are a nuisance; so many crossing the roads, they might even pop your tire. And if you were walking around Dania, you would find ‘em near trash cans and around houses.

But I never thought they were edible until I visited the Andros Island Crab Festival.

When we arrived, the first thing I ordered at the Crab Festival was crab soup. It was delicious. So beware of land crabs in Florida. If I see one, it will be in my pot.

Besides the crabs, there was music, people dancing, a lot of festive activities. The temperature was hot, hot, hot and the humidity seemed like it was 100 percent. Which made it even hotter.

From there we traveled north, about an hour drive to the old town of Red Bays on the northwest coast. There, we visited with the Rev. Bertram Newton and his wife. When we walked in, his wife was sitting in the living room making authentic baskets out of palm leaves. She was not using any store-bought threads of color. Her basket was all made from palm leaves, the bud of the palm. I found out no man-made materials went into the baskets made by the artists of Red Bays. If this isn’t authentic, I don’t know what is. When I saw Mrs. Newton making the basket, I was totally impressed.

Rev. Newton, himself, is getting up in his years. Eighty-eight years old but very spry. Back in 2001, I had an occasion to visit him in Red Bays, went to his church. The Battiest family and Judy Baker and her family had been there to Red Bays earlier than me and had sung at the church there.

Rev. Newton and his family and the extended families of today’s Red Bays are descended from the group of people who came on over in the 1820s to settle there. They were Indians who were followers of Billy Bowlegs who was around the Hendry, Collier and Lee County areas and gave the U.S. Military, as we say, hell back in those days.

Billy Bowlegs eventually surrendered and went to Oklahoma. But many of his followers, realizing that the British had abolished slavery, escaped to Andros Island by canoe and makeshift rafts and made their homes in the swamps of Red Bays. Some of the people who live there still carry on the Bowlegs name.

It would be nice for our Seminole members to go visit them and perhaps visit Rev. Newton and go to his church and observe how these people make such authentic baskets.

The first group who came over lived in the time of the 1800s and early 1900s, living off the land and fishing. They eventually had electricity but hardly running water. They got their water from wells, using buckets and ropes to pull up the water. Even today it seems very primitive. A few of them still live in the old-fashioned chickee style and they cook on open fires just like we used to. And this was interesting to see because this is 2013, not the 1800s or even the 1900s.

True to form, Andros people are very friendly and cordial and they treated us Seminoles very kindly, sharing their stories. It was so nice for my children to witness this culture, as well as myself. Probably the next time I will go there will be in May when they have an annual festival called the Red Snapper Festival. I hope to return there at that time next year. Andros Island appears to have a few nice fishing resorts and nearby motels where you can rest when you are not fishing.

So some of you Tribal members, I dare you to go visit them. If you want more information give me or Pete Gallagher a call and we can give you the details of how you can get there. We can also help you contact tourism manager Peter Douglas who was awfully nice to us. In gratitude, I presented Mr. Douglas with our Tribal flag, as well as – and this is the funny part – a sweetgrass basket made by one of our women.

At some point in time we may invite some of Rev. Newton’s family to come over and teach us their old ways, especially traditional cooking and basket making. Now this would be an experience. Instead of finding sweetgrass and using store-bought threads, we will learn how to make baskets the original way.

I am also seriously thinking about bringing our Red Bays friends here to the reservation for a couple weeks to show us their different arts and crafts made solely from fiber, wood and other materials without the use of anything man-made, such as colored threads or store-bought cloth.

It is truly interesting to see these items created from start to finish. When our Culture Department shows our children how to do bead work or baskets, the beads are bought from Czechoslovakia and cloth materials are bought from stores. When the people in Red Bays set out to make a basket, they will go out into the woods, find the palm tree, cut the bud, dry it and start processing the materials to be turned into a basket solely from material found in the woods.

Our children and some of our folks really need to see this so that this tradition can be carried on. It was interesting to find such culture still alive in Red Bays. These people have not been with us for almost 200 years and their authentic art is still alive.

It needs to be reintroduced and maintained. So, at some point, I will bring the traditional artists of Red Bays, Andros Island here to Florida so we can learn from our own culture how we used to make baskets.


James E. Billie is Chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.