What’s Next? Covid-19, the 2020s and Beyond
Welcome back to the final installment of our Decades of Seminole Tourism series! Over the last year we have traced the triumphs and struggles of Seminole tourism throughout the decades, from the first forays into tourist camps to the monumental success of the casino industry. Last month, we looked at the changes to Seminole tourism in the 2010s. In particular, we celebrated and explored the impact of the Seminole Princesses. For the first time ever, a Seminole Tribe of Florida Tribal Member, was crowned Miss Indian World in 2019. This week, we will be looking at the extreme challenges that have faced Seminole tourism so far in the 2020s with the Covid-19 pandemic. Additionally, we will take a hopeful look at what’s next.
In our featured image this week, you can see the first Grand Entry of the Brighton Field Day Festival & Rodeo on February 14, 2020 (photo by Beverly Bidney, via the Seminole Tribune). This would be one of the last major Seminole Tribe of Florida cultural events before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The Tribe would shut down less than a month later.
Covid-19 Hits Indian Country…
In early 2020, Covid-19 made its way to the United States. The virus quickly spread everywhere, and the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020. The United States quickly followed, declaring a nationwide emergency only two days later on March 13th. By the end of March, Florida had closed all indoor dining.
The blow to tourism would be unprecedented. According to the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) fiscal year gaming revenues dropped 19.5% from 2019 to 2020. Native communities, many of which depend on tourist dollars, were heavily impacted by the pandemic in a multitude of ways. Not only economically, but Indigenous communities were disproportionally affected by the virus itself. Barriers to healthcare, low levels of support, and social structures making distancing from elders and the vulnerable difficult all played a role.
Harvard researcher Eric Henson stated in a Harvard Gazette article that “Native American tribes are having a disproportionate health effect that is highly problematic, and they’re having a disproportionate impact to the revenues that can be used to take on the health crisis. A lot of tribes are having the worst of both worlds at the same time.” In response, many closed their communities and reservations to visitors, balancing the loss of revenue with the impact on the community. On the Blackfeet Reservation, where the entrance to Glacier National Park is located, the Tribal Business Council closed the eastern entrances to the park. “We lost people,” the business council chairman, Timothy Davis, explained. “We didn’t want to lose anymore.”
Above, you can see then-Big Cypress Councilman David Cypress receiving a Covid-19 vaccine shot from Stephen Zitnick of Seminole Fire Rescue at tribal headquarters in Hollywood, Dec. 28, 2020. The Seminole Tribe of Florida worked diligently on its vaccine program throughout the pandemic, encouraging both the community and employees to vaccinate against COVID-19 when it became available.
…And Seminole Tourism
By late March 2020, the Seminole Tribe of Florida closed all their casinos to stop the spread (21 March 2020, Port Charlotte Sun). This was a preemptive move; the Seminole Tribe is a sovereign nation and therefore did not have to comply with the state closing orders. But, they felt that operating the casinos regardless was not safe for the community, their employees, or customers. It would be almost three full months before they would be able to reopen. Below, you can see CEO of Seminole Gaming and Chairman of Hard Rock International Jim Allen speaking to the media at the re-opening of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood on June 12, 2020.
In addition to the casinos, the Seminole Tribe closed the reservations to non-essential traffic. The Tribe closed the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, Billie Swamp Safari, and Swamp Water Café on the Big Cypress Reservation indefinitely. As of now, Billie Swamp Safari has not reopened. The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum would not reopen for almost a year and a half. Closed from March 13, 2020 to August 21, 2021, the Museum reopened with heavy precautions. Former Museum Director Kate Macuen emphasized the safety precautions in a statement about the reopening, saying “We have been carefully preparing for the reopening of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, to ensure the safe return of our staff, visitors and community. We look forward to welcoming everyone back to the museum after 17 months of closure and offering a unique and safe place where our visitors can learn about and celebrate Seminole stories, history and traditions.”
During that time, the Museum did still try and build relationships with visitors, both at a distance and virtually. In May 2020, they launched a pen pal program with resident gator Sally, where people could write in and receive a response. Additionally, they created several educational resources, puzzles, and activities to “bring our exhibits and collection into people’s homes.”
A Bumpy Few Years for Seminole Tourism
The Tribe’s response to Covid-19 was one rooted in protecting a vulnerable, important, and precious community. The slow, three-phase reopening plan was designed to protect visitors and the Tribal community. Even three years later, recovery after Covid-19 is still in the works for the Seminole Tribe of Florida and Seminole tourism. Many events, such as rodeos and festivals, have only returned in-person in the last year or so. The Miss Florida Seminole pageant just returned this year on July 29th, crowning a new Miss Florida Seminole and Jr. Miss Florida Seminole for the first time in four years.
The Tribe also brought back the Brighton Field Day Festival and Rodeo and Tribal Fair and Pow Wow this year. The Brighton Field Day Festival attracted thousands of visitors after its three-year in-person hiatus. Tribal Fair was also a resounding success, expanding on past offerings. Both Tribal Fair and Brighton Field Day were initially scheduled to return in 2022, but were cancelled due to an abundance of caution amid rising Covid-19 cases. Tribal Fair officials stated that “The safety of attendees must always come first,” about the cancellations. During the cancellations, officials worked hard to offer virtual contests for Tribal Members. These included “clothing, arts and crafts, patchwork, beadwork, Seminole dolls, baskets and carvings as well as fine arts for various age divisions.” Although no in-person programs were available, these virtual contests allowed some of these important events to happen.
But, even with the struggles that come with holding events in a post-pandemic world, new events began to emerge. An important cultural staple, rodeos returned in May 2022 with the first ever Bill Osceola Memorial Youth Rodeo. “This is a great thing for [the kids]. They were waiting,” said Cynthia Osceola, daughter of Bill and rodeo organizer. The inaugural Big Cypress Indigenous Arts and Music Festival was also held this year in March.
Tourism Challenges and Changes in a Post Covid-19 World
The biggest challenge that came to Seminole tourism during and after the Covid-19 pandemic was balancing how to keep the community and visitors safe and healthy, while still making connections. Outside of Seminole tourism, different Seminole culture centers worked hard to pivot and serve their community. They offered online language classes, hybrid crafting project prompts, and other ways to stay engaged while being safe. Tribe-wide, many people worked tirelessly to make sure these important programs and community staples did not fall to the wayside. It involved a lot of creative thinking. But, many were successful and showcased resilience in the face of an unprecedented health crisis. This has been true across Seminole tourism. With the challenges of Covid-19, distinct changes in how we interact and engage with the community and visitors have also changed.
At its core, the goal of Seminole tourism is to share the Seminole story, perspective, and culture in a way that educates and encourages. Prior to the pandemic, the Tribe achieved this through in person programs, events, and visitors to the Museum. Post-pandemic connections look much different. It became clear as the pandemic wore on that the methods to create these connections had to change.
At the Museum, programs like the Alligator Pen Pal (above) were geared towards boosting engagement and keeping these connections alive. In collaboration with Seminole Media Productions (SMP) the Museum also launched their Virtual Tour in late 2020. We covered this tour in a previous blog post. The shift was a necessary one, where “Rather than viewing visitation as a tangible metric, counted by the number of people who tour the museum, we have begun to put more emphasis on views, impressions and engagements in the virtual world.”
So, what IS next for Seminole tourism? Over the past year, we have diligently traced the evolution of Seminole tourism from the 1900s all through today. In over a century of history, we have seen the Seminole people lean into tourism as a way of cultural survival, as well to center their own voices in history.
Coming off the Covid-19 pandemic, recovery has been slow. But, the resilience of the past century of history is apparent even now. In the future, expect more creative ways of engagement such as through social media, virtual programs, and educational resources. But, don’t expect beloved events and programs to be put to the wayside. By pivoting programs, expanding events, increasing virtual offerings, and being a community that constantly shows up, the future of the Seminole Tribe of Florida is a bright one. Similarly, Seminole tourism continues to shine as a reflection of the strength of the community.
Interested in the rest of our Decades of Seminole Tourism series? Check out previous blog posts on the 1900s, 1910s Part 1, 1910s Part 2, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s.
Originally from Washington state, Deanna Butler received her BA in Archaeological Sciences from the University of Washington in 2014. Deanna moved to South 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 Fort Myers, FL with her husband, son, and dog.