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New book builds on sharing tribal culture

Carrie Dilley poses Oct. 10 at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Big Cypress during a meet the author book signing event for her ‘Thatched Roofs and Open Sides.’
Carrie Dilley poses Oct. 10 at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Big Cypress during a meet the author book signing event for her ‘Thatched Roofs and Open Sides.’

BIG CYPRESS — For the first time in architectural academia, a book uniquely devoted to Seminole chickees past and present is available for scholars, history buffs and everyday readers.

“Thatched Roofs and Open Sides,” written by Carrie Dilley with significant input from Seminole Tribe members including Chairman James E. Billie, explores and explains the architecture of chickees and the humble abodes’ changing role in Seminole society.

“You can find books about teepees and other Native American architecture, but if you Google ‘Seminole chickee’ nothing comes up,” said Dilley, the architectural historian for Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Big Cypress.

Dilley worked for nearly five years on the text-bookish yet reader-friendly, 216-page hardback published by University Press of Florida. All sale profits from the $74.95 book, which hit bookstores and Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum shelves in early October, go to the Tribe. In mid-October, it received the 2015 Book Award from the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians.

Dilley unknowingly began collecting data for the book in early 2009 when she launched a chickee survey project with the intent to document all chickees in every Seminole community. In 2010, she was approached by the publisher, who suggested that she compile the information for an academic work.

Dilley knew the topic was indeed underrepresented in the field of architecture and anthropology, but with respect for the Seminole culture and people, she took the idea in a different direction.

“For sure, it became collaboration. I know that the book would not be what it turned out to be without the voices of the chickee makers. It is a critical component to have the other voices and to stick to what they told me and share what they wanted to share,” Dilley said.

Chairman Billie, Norman Huggins, Sandy Billie Jr., Norman “Skeeter” Bowers, Lonnie Billie, Ronnie Billie, Joe Dan Osceola, Wade Osceola and Bobby Henry were among a list of master chickee builders who granted Dilley interviews. Surely not all chickee builders were represented in the book, but Dilley ended the interview process with 11 tribal voices and representation from all reservations.

Conversations happened at the builders’ homes, driving through reservations while checking out remnants of old, abandoned chickee camps, inside still functioning camps and underneath the thatched roofs of backyard chickees. No discussions occurred in Dilley’s Museum office.

Norman Bowers said he was honored to participate in the book’s creation. For him, the chickee is a symbol of culture, tradition and survival. His mother, like scores of elder Tribe members, was raised in a chickee as a matter of necessity. Bowers grew up participating in ceremonies in chickee camps and became a master chickee builder.

“For me, the chickee is still necessary, but it evolved into a way to earn a living that only a Seminole man can do the best,” Bowers said.

Bowers’ signature L-shaped, 100-foot-long chickee flanks the east side of Fred Smith Rodeo Arena in Brighton.

Sharing the culture in a book does not bother Bowers. Several of his chickees already dot university campuses.

“For readers, finding out about chickees gives them insight into the how Seminoles live. For me, it’s a side job, a business and life,” Bowers said. “It’s good to let people know that even though we have casinos and money, we have our ways. A Seminole man can fish, hunt, build a chickee, sing our songs, honor our traditions … and always be able to survive and make a living.”

Dilley’s book takes the chickee through its early temporary function into today’s evolved multi-functional structure, she said. The perfect example, as described and pictured in the book, is Chairman Billie’s home.

“It’s as original and current as it possibly can be. It’s the epitome of the evolution,” Dilley said.

Completely modern with top plumbing and kitchen conveniences, plus a living room that boasts a flat-screen television, the chickee home in Brighton features an entirely thatched roof – no man-made barriers rest between the organic roof and the sky.

Photographs and text reveal the basic configuration and makeup of chickees from the four-post cypress log frame to the roof’s ridge cap reinforcements that sometimes employ asphalt or tar paper. One photograph shows a chickee structure with plywood walls; another shows a “Seminole Cook House” chickee circa 1910.

But the book reveals only what is meant for public consumption. It maintains a line of discretion of which only Tribal members are aware.

“I knew when to back off when broaching a subject too closely,” Dilley said. “I did not try to pry because I knew there would be things that I will just never know.”

Dilley said cultural education leaders Willie Johns and Lewis Gopher reviewed the book for content and accuracy from the Seminole perspective. Chairman Billie and the late Lorene Gopher also read the book and gave approval.

“There were checks and balances,” Dilley said. “The book was not written in a vacuum.”