BRIGHTON — New features woven into a lineup of traditional events at the 78th annual Brighton Field Day extravaganza proved that as time brings change, the heart of the matter stays the same.
“Heck, 78 years ago families gathered under a few chickees for a big picnic with three-legged races and other field games. Prizes were few but now, like then, it was just about getting together and having a good time,” said Lewis Gopher, special assistant to Brighton Councilman Andrew J. Bowers Jr. and a coordinator of the latest Field Day on Feb. 12-14.
Attendance averaged 5,000 people per day for the event that evolved from a private Seminole picnic in 1938 to the current regional cultural festival.
Estelle Loud and her friends Tere Rancosett and Carmen Santo, all of Lake Worth, traveled 81 miles to attend what she called a “must do.”
“I love Native American art so whenever and wherever I can experience the culture I am there,” Loud said. Loud recalled her pre-retirement days when she worked in Michigan on several Iroquois and Onondaga museum projects.
Field Day celebrations kicked off earlier in the week with a two-night rodeo that launched the 2016 competitive season for the Indian National Finals Rodeo. The INFR championships will be held Nov. 8-12 in Las Vegas.
The Friday-through-Sunday Field Day schedule was packed starting daily with grand entry parades that showcased Native dancers throughout Indian Country, flag bearers and Tribe leaders. Shows featuring snakes, alligators, horses and bulls provided thrills. Food and merchandise vendors hawked fare from gator bites and swamp cabbage to crafts from hand-carved tomahawks, hand-beaded jewelry and hand-tooled leather bags.
“I’ve been coming since I was a child and every year it gets bigger and better. I love it every year just like the one before,” said Laverne Thomas, of Brighton, who competed in the first Seminole hair style contest.
Last year, organizers added horse racing to the excitement. The second consecutive races this year pitted Tribal citizens in revved up heats around a makeshift equestrian track. The race was followed by an Indian relay race starring three national award-winning tribal teams who compete bareback.
Brighton’s new high-tech amphitheater, complete with professional lighting and sound plus backstage dressing rooms, was christened with an entertainment roster that included hip-hop artist Supaman (Apsaalooke), the Osceola Brothers Band (Seminole) and country western singer Neal McCoy.
Some first-time Field Day attendees included alligator wrestlers in the Freestyle Alligator Wresting Competitions (FAWC). Emceed and facilitated by Seminole alligator wrestlers James Holt and Billy Walker, the competition at Fred Smith Rodeo Arena drew hundreds of spectators.
“Part of the excitement is always that rare chance that something really bad can happen. People sit on the edge of their seats holding their breath,” said alligator wrestler Daniel Beck, who worked at the Tribe’s Native Village until his arm was nearly severed during a show in 2012.
Tribal citizens from all over Florida attended the weekend festivities.
James Henry said he always enjoys coming back “home” to Brighton although he has been a Tampa resident for decades. This year he visited with his wife, Lilla; son Dakota; daughter-in-law Kelsey; and newborn grandson Kenzie.
“I come back to this spiritual place to talk to family and people I haven’t seen in a while. It opens my mind,” Henry said.
Because Tampa residents do not live together in a private community as in Hollywood or Fort Pierce, they are not tuned in daily to Seminole traditions, he said. Lilla Henry said the family’s disconnection makes Brighton Field Day an intensely sweet event.
“It’s more than a two-and-a-half-hour drive for frybread,” Lilla Henry said.