Florida Adventure at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation
With summer around the corner, and school letting out, more and more families are looking for things to do. A few weeks ago, we talked about how Florida’s wet season affects the weather, plants, and animals. We also shared tips for any traveler visiting during the summer. But, don’t let the summer wet season in Florida get you down! Even with wet weather coming, you can still explore beyond the confines of Naples, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami. This week, join us for a closer look at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation and why it is a destination for anyone looking for a Florida adventure. Above, the featured photo shows cowboy Jimmy Cypress sitting on a horse in Big Cypress, circa 1955 (Peithmann, Irvin M. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.)
The Big Cypress Seminole Reservation
The Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation is the largest of the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s reservations. It is located south of Lake Okeechobee and north of Alligator Alley. Eighty-two square miles, it has a population of around 600 people. The Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation was designated in 1938. But, Seminoles have lived here since creation. The Big Cypress, Hollywood and Brighton Reservations formed around the same time. Although not all Seminoles moved to the reservations, the drainage of the Everglades and development of South Florida signaled a shift for the Seminole people. Resources thinned and farming began to dominate. Consequently, reservation lands became more attractive to live on. More reservations would soon follow. Now there are reservations in Hollywood, Brighton, Big Cypress, Fort Pierce, Immokalee, and Tampa. Additionally, there are trust lands outside Lakeland, FL.
In the early to mid 20th century, a new era of Seminole cattle ranching would flourish on the Big Cypress and Brighton reservations. Without a doubt, Seminoles have been heavily involved in the cattle industry in Florida for centuries. But, Seminole ranching was plagued by rustling and strife from Spanish contact all through the Seminole War period. Seminoles are excellent ranchers. Followers of Oconee leader Cowkeeper would settle outside Alachua in the mid 1700s. By 1775, there are records of Seminoles working 7-10,000 head of cattle on Payne’s Prairie near Gainesville. They used trained cow dogs to manage large herds. Non-Seminole ranchers later borrowed this practice.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida is now a leader in the cattle industry in the United States. The Junior Cypress Rodeo and Entertainment Complex on the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation has room for 3,000 attendees. It is used for rodeos, tractor pulls, concerts, and all manner of tribal events.
So, What Can You Visit on the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation?
The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum
Opened in 1997, this year marks the 25th Anniversary of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. Working to further the mission to “celebrate, preserve, and interpret Seminole culture and history,” it is a great family-friendly destination in any season. With updated exhibits, a mile-long boardwalk through a cypress dome, and exciting programs and events, it will be the highlight of your Florida adventure. Before visiting, check out this previous blog post for an essential packing list and detailed directions!
Big Cypress RV Resort
Looking to extend your Florida adventure on reservation and stay longer? The Big Cypress RV Resort is the ideal place to immerse yourself in the Everglades in style. With paved RV pads and full-service hook ups, the resort has many amenities and recreational opportunities. Located just across the street from the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, it is also centrally located on reservation.
Swamp Water Café
Recently reopened, Swamp Water Café is located on the grounds of Billie Swamp Safari (which is still currently closed). With both Seminole and American food on the menu, there is something to please even the pickiest eaters. Try the Indian taco – you won’t regret it!
Accessible and Family Friendly
Just over an hour away from each coast, the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation is ideal for travelers who want to experience a unique Florida adventure. Even the drive in is an experience! From the East Coast, you will take exit 49 off I-75 at the Miccosukee Service Plaza, and travel down the winding Snake Road. But, keep your eyes open! Alligators, birds, turtles, and snakes are often spotted in the canals and waterways along the road. From the West Coast, you’ll travel through lush farmland. In fact, the drive shows you a fantastic slice of Florida beyond the beaches. Pastures with cows, mixed hardwoods, Spanish moss, and hammocks dot the landscape. But with only a few hours (round trip!) of easy driving, you will feel worlds away and immersed in the rich views of the Florida Everglades.
Once you reach the center of the reservation, you’ll find it welcoming and accessible for people of all abilities and interests. The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum is fully handicap accessible. Wheelchairs are also available upon request. The Museum boardwalk is also accessible to those of all abilities. It is spacious enough for wheelchairs and walking aides. There are seating areas every 1/8th of a mile for visitors to stop, rest, and take in the sounds of the cypress dome. There are also safety and emergency phones along the boardwalk loop. Families and school groups are always welcome. The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum boasts robust educational resources for students of all ages.
Wild Florida Adventure
Nestled in the heart of the Everglades, the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation is removed from the bustle of either coast. Interested in seeing more of Florida’s natural beauty? The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum has a mile-long raised boardwalk loop through a 60-acre cypress dome. There, you will experience your own wild Florida adventure. It is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. So, there are sure to be a wide variety of warblers, raptors, and wading birds to spot on your stroll. Trail cameras are also mounted on the boardwalk. You can look through photos from the cameras here. Notable photos are posted near the back exit of the Museum across from the Library. Raccoons, Florida black bears, coyotes, snakes, turkeys, and even Florida panthers all call Big Cypress home. Looking for plants more than animals? Signage along the boardwalk will help you identify many native Florida flora.
A Learning Opportunity
Inside or outside, there are ample opportunities to learn during your visit. On the boardwalk, visitors may explore a living Village and Hunting Camp. You can meet traditional Seminole crafters at the Village. Maybe, you’ll even get to watch a canoe carving demonstration at the Hunting Camp. Inside the Museum, several permanent exhibits are available to share Seminole history, art, and culture. Interested in scheduling a school tour or field trip? Find contact information, additional resources, and reading lists here.
So, What’s on Exhibit?
In addition to the main exhibits, there are several temporary exhibits featured at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. Currently in the Nook Gallery is “Two Worlds: Heenechatche, The Legacy of William Buffalo Tiger.” This exhibit explores the huge impact of William Buffalo Tiger. He was instrumental in the independence of the Miccosukee Tribe. It “will focus on his contributions to the sovereignty and education of native people and his lead in the fight to protect the Creator’s gifts.” The Miccosukee Tribe gained state recognition separately from the Seminole Tribe of Florida in 1957. They gained federal recognition in 1962. Tiger was the first elected tribal Chairman of the Miccosukee Tribe. He helped strike a delicate balance between honoring traditional cultural practices, while still adapting to the modern world.
The exhibition “Home is Where the Heart Is” is displayed in the Mosaic Community Art Gallery. It recently opened on June 8th. The art exhibition features pieces from artists at the Ahfachkee School (K-12). It “is a colorful showcase capturing the excitement of being back in the art studio after emerging from the COVID lockdown.” The show includes both independent pieces, as well as two large collaborative displays. In the West Gallery, “Alligator Wrestling: Danger. Entertainment. Tradition” will remain on exhibition until the late fall. For more information on this exhibit, check out a previous blog post here.