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Living, learning history at PECS culture camp

BRIGHTON — Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School students brought history to life in April as they learned to live as their ancestors did at culture camp.

The annual culture camp days featured age-appropriate hands-on tasks and activities on April 17 for grades 7-8 and April 18 for grades 4-6. On the first day, the older students learned to scale and clean fish, break down cabbage palms to make swamp cabbage and played traditional games such as horseshoes and corn hole.

PECS eighth-grade girls show off their traditional hairstyles in a formal portrait at the Brighton culture camp April 17. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Most of the day’s activities were gender specific: boys slaughtered and butchered a 250-pound hog, carved spears from cypress wood, shot arrows at animal-shaped targets and threw tomahawks. Girls prepared the traditional meal, which included pork, fish, frybread, swamp cabbage, sweet potatoes, green beans, rice and stew with gravy. They also cleaned and roasted three water turtles, ground corn and made roasted corn sofkee, tossed skillets and learned to create traditional Seminole hairstyles.

“Learning this will help me survive in the wilderness if anything happens,” said eighth-grader Tatiana Torres, 15. “It’s cool and fun learning what our ancestors used to do; they were smart.”

Girls listened and watched around a table as Helene Buster demonstrated how to make fry bread light and fluffy. She told them the key is not to work the dough too much or it will get hard when it is cooked.

Most of the students have been learning culture throughout their time at PECS and have attended culture camp before. For eighth-graders, this was their last time spending the day under the oaks and chickees at the Brighton camp.

“I try not to think about this as my last year, this school has been a home to me,” said eighth-grader Winnie Gopher, 13. “I’ve learned respect for the elders who come out and do this with us; they don’t have to. It humbles me. Every time I come out here, they teach me more and more.”

Brighton elders come to help every year with a mission to pass the culture on to the next generations.

“We do it so the culture can continue,” Alice Sweat said. “Someone has to teach these things, we aren’t going to be around forever. The girls are eager to learn. Hopefully they can add this to their modern homes.”

Culture used to be taught in clans by family members, but accommodations are made for today’s modern lifestyles.

“Even though we aren’t their family, the elders in the community come together to teach it and pass it on,” Buster said. “Every clan has their own ways and the kids have to learn those from them. We teach the general things; I always tell them this is the way I was taught.”

Students appreciate the opportunity to learn and look forward to culture camp every year. Eighth-grader Shylynn Testerman, 14, will miss having it in the future, but she plans to keep learning from her great-grandmother Emma Fish.

Seventh-graders noticed a marked difference in camp now that they are the older students. Tasks and responsibilities are quite different as a younger student.

“We stand out here longer and help out more,” said seventh-grader CeCe Thomas, 13. “When we’re younger they don’t trust us as much. Now they let us cook by the fire. I see how hard our ancestors had to work just to cook a meal. I’m thankful for what we have now, but I don’t take it for granted.”

Instead of the usual legends storytelling sessions during the day, this year the boys and girls were divided up for discussion about Seminole life. Andy Buster met with the boys while Sweat, Jenny Shore and Helene Buster talked to the girls. Their approaches were quite different, but equally interesting.

Andy Buster aimed to tell the boys about what it means to be a Seminole man. He spoke as the boys sat in a semi-circle around him.

“At the very beginning, there was nothing,” Buster said. “But the Creator had a plan. He wanted somebody to look after the land so he took clay, made it into the image of himself and blew on it. That was the first man. We came from his breath and his spirit. No matter what people call it, there is only one Creator.”

Buster gave advice for living an honorable life and told the boys to stay focused on what they are doing, where they are and why. Follow rules. Be aware of every word they speak, be precise. Observe so they can learn what is going on.

“You need to be knowledgeable enough to provide for the family,” he said. “You can do anything you want if you put your minds to it and try hard. Take care of your body so it will last a long time. Stay strong. I never use the word power, I use energy and knowledge. The Creator has all the power.”

Over at the girls’ discussion, the women talked about practical matters that pertain to females.

“Every month you have to take care of yourself,” Shore said. “Use a special plate and silverware during that time and don’t share food with other girls or boys.”

“I used to have to go eat by myself,” added Helene Buster. “We weren’t allowed to swim, ride horses or sit at the table with other people. We were told we would make the boys sick.”

“You are blessed,” Sweat said. “We at STOF are all blessed. I encourage you to use your money wisely; take care of yourself and your children with it.”

Traditionally, Seminole men have always been providers of food for the family while the women have always cooked the meals.

“Women ate last because you want the men to stay healthy so they could bring food home to the family,” Buster explained. “If you were a good cook, you made sure to make enough so you could eat too.”

The discussion then turned to marriage and the importance of marrying into the Tribe to maintain it.

“You can’t help who you fall in love with, but you want to try to keep the Seminole blood,” Buster said. “You need to learn the stuff we are doing here so you can pass it on to your children.”

More pearls of wisdom were shared with the girls.

“Learn to sew, do beadwork and make crafts,” Shore said. “Learn your language. Language is who you are; if you lost that, you lose everything.”

“Use the words you learn in class,” added Buster. “If you use them, you will get used to speaking. You all know a lot of words; just use them in conversation with each other.”

After the girls served lunch, the students went to the other activities. Girls learned to make the hairstyle often seen in black and white photos of ancestors in the Everglades. The hair is wrapped around a piece of cardboard and kept in place with a net.

“They wore it that way to block the sun,” said culture instructor Jade Osceola. “We wore it instead of a hat; we probably couldn’t have afforded a hat.”

By the end of the day, kids had experienced a time gone by.

“This has taught me to respect my elders, cherish my culture and learn everything I can while I can,” said eighth-grader Pherian Baker, 14. “It’s important to me and I want it to be around for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

The message to learn the culture and use it or lose it was a strong one.

“We went from doing everything for ourselves to being able to pay someone to do things for us,” Helene Buster said. “A little bit of knowledge is better than none. Two days of culture camp probably isn’t enough, but it gives them a taste of the culture.”

Seventh- and eighth-grade girls line up to place fry bread in the hot oil over the open fire during PECS culture camp day. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Teachers and students worked together to make sure these water turtles were on the lunch menu. The turtles needed to be cleaned out, which as it turns out, wasn’t an easy task. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Davey Snow shows Pherian Baker and Jarrett Beecham how to butcher a hog. All the boys at the PECS culture camp participated in preparing the hog for the girls to cook. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Ohnie Osceola observes as students take turns grinding roasted corn fine enough to make sofkee. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Jenny Shore shows Jaime Smith how to create the iconic Seminole hairstyle. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
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

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