Florida Seminole Tourism

Beautiful Indigenous Art at the Happiest Place on Earth

Headed to Disney World parks this summer? Be sure to stop by Epcot and its World Showcase American Heritage Gallery for a stunning exhibition of contemporary and historic Indigenous American art. The exhibit, Creating Tradition: Innovation and Change in American Indian Art, features pieces from seven distinct geographic regions within the United States. This week, we will explore the exhibit, with a particular focus on the items curated by the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. The large gallery space features a wide array of Indigenous art from across the country.

In our featured image, you can see the entrance to the American Heritage Gallery, where the exhibition is located. I actually stumbled across the exhibition when visiting Epcot with my own family! My husband, son, and I ducked into the gallery to get a break from the heat. The Southeast exhibit space is directly to the right of the entrance, and viewable from the outside the gallery.

As we walked in, the distinctive patchwork clothing caught my eye and I instantly recognized it as Seminole. Once you walk into the gallery you can see the visually stunning wooden map at its center. The represented regions are Eastern Woodlands, Southeast, Plains, Great Basin & Plateau, Southwest, California and Hawaii, and Northwest Coast and Arctic.

Creating Tradition: Innovation and Change in American Indian Art

Originally developed and opened in 2018, the exhibition represents the first time American Indian heritage, culture, and art has been installed at Epcot. In a 2022 article about the exhibition, Disney Imagineer Senior Curator Deb Van Horn explained the vision behind the installation. “Our goal is to feature historic pieces next to contemporary works to showcase the evolution of tradition,” said Van Horn. “We want our exhibit to make clear that Native artworks are not only of the past. Native communities are vibrant communities, and we want to share their stories and artwork with our guests.”

Disney developed the exhibition in partnership with the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) in Santa Fe, New Mexico and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. “We partner closely with MIAC or NMAI to find pieces for the gallery, and we also work directly with the artist and tribal organizations to ensure we are representing the cultures in a respectful and engaging way,” Van Horn continued, “allowing us to bring only the most authentic stories for our guests to enjoy.” One of these additional partners is the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, who personally curates and installs their objects in the Southeast section.

Below, you can see Seminole medicine man Bobby Henry visiting Creating Traditions in 2018. The image appeared in a March 9, 2019 article published in Cowboys & Indians. Henry and other Seminole Tribal members attended the 2018 dedication ceremony and opening for the exhibit. Henry also performed a stomp dance.

The Juxtaposition of Contemporary and Historic

In a 2019 article, exhibition co-curators Tony Chavarria (Santa Clara Pueblo) and Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Lakota) discussed the message they were trying to convey. Chavarria is the Curator of Ethnology at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture and has over thirty years of experience. Her Many Horses is a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian. Her Many Horses and Chavarria are also both established artists. Chavarria is a potter, and Her Many Horses works with traditional bead and quillwork.

Chavarria states that while developing the exhibit, they were working “to combat the stereotype that there’s only one type of Indian, there are different types of creative expressions coming from many different groups. Sometimes they’re similar, but each tribe has their own unique take on it.” The curators also wanted to show visitors “that Native people [are] still here, and that these traditional teachings and art forms are being passed down today,” adds Her Many Horses. “People are still creating, but they have new materials.” To further emphasize that point, the exhibition also includes an immersive experience in addition to the art. Traditional music fills the exhibit space, and there are also interactive storytelling installations with narration from some of the contemporary artists.


Southeast Section

One large, bright glass exhibit case contains the Southeast section. From left to right, visitors can find a 1980 covered basket by Rowena Bradley (Eastern Band of Cherokee), a 2015 Land Trust Basket by Shan Goshorn (Eastern Band of Cherokee), Stickball Rackets by Henry John Billie (Seminole), a beaded bracelet by Marcus Amerman (Choctaw), and also two beaded Choctaw Men’s Shoulder Sashes. The accompanying text notes that “contemporary artists from Southeastern native nations address both historical events and present-day issues in their works, even while expressing the enduring influence of their traditional cultures.”

Selections from the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum has been involved in the exhibition since its development and opening in 2018. In that time, a number of objects have been installed in this exhibit case. The Museum routinely rotates items to protect the object, refresh the exhibit, and to show more of the Seminole story through material culture. In fact, the entire exhibit is constantly changing; since the intial installation many, many objects have been rotated and switched out.

In a 2021 blog post about refreshing items at the exhibition, then-Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Registrar Chelsea Nielisen outlined the process of her and former Museum Conservator Robin Croskery-Howard setting up and rotating the objects. Nielsen shared that “Since the exhibit opened in 2018, the Museum has changed the objects on display five times allowing us to share more of the collection and, therefore, more of the Seminole story. Rotating objects also ensures their safety by limiting the amount of time they are exposed to potentially damaging conditions such as dust and light.” She further noted that they rotate objects every six months.

Below, you can find some images of the objects from the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum that are currently installed, as of Spring 2024, at the exhibition.


Bandolier Bags

At this time, there are two incredibly impressive, beaded bandolier bags installed at the exhibition. Below, in gorgeous red, white, and black beading, is a 1997 Creek Bandolier Bag by Jay McGirt (Creek). McGirt crafted it  from glass beads, wood, cotton, polyester, and thread. An enduring aftereffect of the Indian Removal Act and the upheaval and suffering that followed was a fracturing of the traditional crafting. The late Jay McGirt was dedicated to a cultural and artistic resurgence of these Southeastern clothing styles. Many of these had been lost and forgotten. McGirt “successfully revived the production of beaded Maskoke bandolier bags. He also promoted the sewing and daily wearing of Southeastern tribal clothing.”

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum shared McGirt’s contemporary bandolier bag alongside a mid-late 19th Century Seminole Bandolier bag, below. Through the juxtaposition of the two, you can see where McGirt weaved his own unique style and innovative technique, while working to rekindle the crafting traditions of the past. You can learn more about Seminole artists who also worked to revive traditional beading in a previous Museum blog post about the Rekindled exhibit from 2017.

Stickball Rackets

The exhibition also includes two sets of stickball rackets, one historic and one contemporary. Stickball is a traditional game, similar to lacrosse, played by a number of southeastern tribes. Below, you can see a set of contemporary rackets made by Henry John Billie (Seminole) in the 1990s. These stickball rackets were of particular interest to my four-year old son, who asked how stickball was played repeatedly when examining them.

In addition to these contemporary rackets, the exhibit space features some historic Creek Stickball rackets, circa 1800. A particularly interesting thread that is seen throughout is how interwoven the styles and art from this region are to each other. Across tribes, the long history of trade and interaction, even fractured after Indian Removal, can be seen in the art. The same thread can be seen through time, with contemporary pieces paying homage to the crafting traditions of the past, while continuing to evolve and change.

Patchwork Clothing

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum installed two patchwork clothing pieces in addition to the stickball sticks and bandolier bags. To the left, a bright red, collared Seminole patchwork jacket makes a bold addition to the exhibit space. Made of satin, it features three bands of patchwork, and rick rack bordering the collar. This object dates to the 1970s. On the right, a spring green Alligator wrestling shirt is installed on another mannequin. The artist, Mary Johns (Seminole), crafted the shirt in the 1990s.  Johns made the shirt out of cotton, elastic, polyester, and metal snap closures. Two large dark patchwork bands sweep across the shirt’s chest and onto the arms, making a striking visual statement.

We sincerely hope that you stop by the Epcot American Heritage Gallery to view the exhibition if you are spending time at Disney World parks. My family and I had a wonderful time exploring the exhibition space, and not only the Southeast representation. There is an incredible amount of precious Indigenous art on display, tucked away in the Happiest Place on Earth.

In particular, the inclusion of both contemporary and historic indigenous art made the entire exhibit feel very current and fresh. This, along with the constant object rotation, means guests can come back and visit and not see the same object. It also felt incredibly accessible, and relevant and interesting for a wide variety of ages. Even the attention span of a four-year-old was snagged by a number of the objects.

Disney expects to have the exhibition installed through 2026. So, now is your opportunity to visit this unique, exquisite exhibition before it leaves! Below, you can find a list of featured artists and contributing partners, which can be found within the gallery space.

Author Bio

Originally from Washington state, Deanna Butler received her BA in Archaeological Sciences from the University of Washington in 2014. Deanna moved to Florida in 2016. Soon, she began working for the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office. Deanna was the THPO’s Archaeological Collections Assistant from 2017-2021. While at the THPO, Deanna worked to preserve, support, and process the Tribe’s archaeological collection. She often wrote the popular Artifact of the Month series and worked on many community and educational outreach programs. She lives in Lakeland, FL with her husband, two sons, and dog.

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