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Seminole Nation of Oklahoma visitors delve into STOF culture, history

Naples council liaison Brian Zepeda shares information with members of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma during a tour of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on April 5. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

BIG CYPRESS — Seven members of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma spent a whirlwind two days visiting Seminole Tribe of Florida tribal members and venues in early April. The group visited the Brighton, Hollywood and Big Cypress reservations. The visit was arranged by Naples Council liaison Brian Zepeda and Brighton Councilman Larry Howard.

Seminole Nation Principal Chief Lewis J. Johnson said the trip was special to him since he lived in Brighton for a few years about 20 years ago. He has visited numerous times since then.

“My experience is always good when I come to the Seminole Tribe,” Chief Johnson said. “The hospitality and courtesy shown to us is always overwhelming. It’s an honor to be here.”

The trip’s first day featured an airboat ride in the Everglades, a trip to the History Fort Lauderdale museum, a tour of the Hard Rock memorabilia vault and dinner at the Council Oak restaurant at Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood.

The second day included a trip to the Brighton Reservation where the group toured Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School and the Florida Seminole Veterans Building.

Chief Johnson reflected on seeing the PECS’ immersion program. His tribal language is Creek, which is very similar to the Seminole Creek spoken on the Brighton Reservation.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Chief Johnson said. “It shows what can be done when the effort is put in. We spoke and sang with the kids. They are really learning. I see great benefits to learning the language and communicating in it all day long. We were all very impressed with the program.”

After Brighton, the group’s next stop was the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Big Cypress. A few of Zepeda’s bandolier bags are on display at the Seminole Nation’s museum in Oklahoma, so the Oklahoma Seminoles were interested in seeing other bags at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki.

“Beads were a sign of wealth for the ladies, like bandolier bags were for the men,” Zepeda told the group.

At an exhibit of Miccosukee leader Buffalo Tiger’s artifacts, Zepeda told the story of what it took for the Miccosukee Tribe to be recognized by the federal government. When the government refused to recognize them as a tribe, Tiger approached Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who said he would recognize them instead. The U.S. government wasn’t pleased, so in 1962 the Miccosukee Tribe finally received the federal recognition it sought.

“The Miccosukees made a power play and it paid off for them,” Zepeda said.

After the tour, Billy Walker gave some history of alligator wrestling and demonstrated how it’s done on the lawn behind the museum. From there, the group toured the museum’s vault where restored artifacts are kept. In the vault, a bandolier bag, believed to have been owned by Seminole warrior Osceola, was on display along with other items including vintage tiny beaded moccasins, beadwork and patchwork.

The museum keeps its collection of paintings hung on movable racks in the vault when not on display. An image of Osceola, painted in 1838 by Robert John Curtis, garnered a lot of attention from the group. The original was painted while Osceola was in prison at Fort Moultrie in South Carolina. The museum has had the image since 1997. It is one of only three known copies of the original oil painting, which is located at the Charleston Museum.

Seminole Nation members Rodney Factor and Jake Tiger were impressed with the collection of textiles and bandolier bags from the 1800s in the vault.

“The museum has a lot of the clothing and things they used for their everyday things,” Factor said. “To see them displayed on mannequins brings them to life.”

The two men examined a display of vintage clothing with a practiced eye.

“The bags are pretty intricate,” said Tiger, who made a bandolier bag inspired by the one worn by Billy Bowlegs. “I try to do as accurate a job as they did; I don’t use sewing machines in my bags or clothing.”

By the end of their visit to their Florida kin, the Oklahoma Seminoles had a lot to consider.

“I learned a lot about the culture of my ancestors,” said Rex Hailey, commander of the Seminole Nation color guard. “It’s been very educational, it’s something I can pass down to my children and grandchildren.”

Jake Tiger, from the Seminole Nation, examines a copy of an 1838 painting of Chief Osceola in the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum vault. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Members of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma pose with John Madrigal, Brian Zepeda and Brighton Councilman Larry Howard in front of the Florida Seminole Veterans Building in Brighton. (Photo Marlain Weeks)
From left, Big Cypress Councilwoman Mariann Billie, left, shares a laugh with Charlotte Tommie and Seminole Nation Chief Lewis J. Johnson. (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