THE SEMINOLES—FLORIDA’S ORIGINAL TOURISM ENTREPRENEURS, PART 6
Hello! Welcome to the sixth installment in our 8 week series highlighting Seminole Tourism, past and present. In this series, we will be showcasing how tourism has been a key part of the Seminole entrepreneurial spirit for over a century using articles from The Seminole Tribune. Today’s featured article is about objects donated to the Museum from the tourist trade and outside of it. Note that this article was written when the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum was still closed to the public. As of August 21st, 2021, it is reopened.
by Tara Backhouse, May 6, 2021
These patchwork skirts and dresses were bought for four sisters between the ages 5 and 11 in December 1969. (Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)
BIG CYPRESS — As we move further away from 2020, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum is happy to experience this bright new year and the opportunities that it brings. Two recent donations of historic pieces provide one such opportunity, the chance to connect beautiful creations of Seminole artisans to early 20th century Seminole history. For these particular donations, we are lucky to know the stories of the people who got the pieces in Florida during the early 1900s and then returned them to the tribe in the early 2000s. The first objects, two skirts and two dresses, tell the story of a family on vacation in 1969 in Florida. Dorothy Pegues, the donor, was very young when her parents visited a village on the Tamiami Trail. Dorothy’s mother wrote detailed descriptions of the family’s travels, and her description of that day includes:
“On Christmas day…we headed eastward across the Tamiami Trail through the Everglades. Many Seminole Indians live here and we stopped to visit one village. Two little Indian girls, about 7 and 10 years of age, acted as guides and although they were very poor by our standards, they were very happy. We asked an Indian woman how long it took to make a skirt or dress, but since she did not seem to understand, the little girls acted as interpreters. The answer was one week.”
Dorothy’s mother purchased the clothing from a gift shop on the way out of the village. From this family’s experience, it’s clear that the village they visited was used to visitors like them. The children were ready to act as tour guides and interpreters when needed, and there were souvenirs that could be purchased. This village was one of several on the newly built Tamiami Trail that was adjusting to a new way of life that depended on the interest and financial contributions of curious travelers driving between Naples and Miami. At other locations in Florida, artificial Seminole villages were opening, and these enterprises served solely to attract tourists by using aspects of Seminole culture, such as village life, artisanship, and alligator wrestling. Seminole families often travelled seasonally to such villages to make a living because their traditional way of life was rapidly disappearing. While some families eventually adjusted to this kind of lifestyle, many did not. It was not an easy time to thrive, and those that did are a testament to the ingenuity and resilience of the Seminole people.
The very small dolls recently donated tell a completely different story. They were donated by a great-granddaughter of Ethel Cutler Freeman. Freeman was an anthropologist from the American Institute of Anthropology at a time when very few women worked in that professional field. She was best known for her work on the Big Cypress Reservation from 1940 to 1943. During that time she spent a lot of time getting to know the people of Big Cypress. In contrast to the camps on Tamiami Trail and the Seminole “villages” created for tourists, life on Big Cypress was not quite as involved in the tourist trade. Freeman encountered a community affected by the environmental changes of Everglades drainage projects as well as by increasing governmental regulations and assistance that interfered with traditional ways of life. These were problems that plagued all the Seminole reservations. The dolls are exquisite examples of the accomplished craftsmanship that could be found on Big Cypress and other Seminole reservations in the early 20th century. Like the clothing donation, palmetto fiber dolls were made in order to be sold to tourists. Therefore even though Big Cypress was not as central to the tourist trade, families there were involved in producing artistic goods and traveling to places on the coasts or on Tamiami Trail in order to sell them.
The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum is here to share Seminole stories like these with the Seminole community and our audience around the world. Our collection of nearly 200,000 historic objects helps us to do this. If you would like to join us in this mission, let’s talk about how you can be involved. While the museum is still closed to the public, we can be reached at email@example.com