'Where are the tipis?' Tribe members look to demystify and educate on Seminole heritage
More than 3,000 members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida live on six reservations throughout the state with nearly 700 on the Big Cypress Reservation. Yet, their way of life remains a mystery to many.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida is a collection of people whose ancestors have lived for more than 10,000 years in what became the Sunshine State — yet tribe members are still answering antiquated questions.
“Where are the tipis? You guys go to grocery stores? Where are the men in loincloths? Just common tropes that people see on TV," said Chandler Demayo. "That's kind of why I'm glad I'm in the position that I'm in.”
Demayo, a member of the Seminole Tribe, works as an educator at the Big Cypress Reservation’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. The 20-year-old grew up on the Hollywood reservation and went to school in the city, so questions about his heritage aren’t new.
“It's a little shocking at first, but I take pride in the fact that people can leave this facility and this reservation and maybe take a little bit more knowledge and have a different way of thinking when they leave here,” Demayo said.
If you're still wondering about the tipis, Seminoles traditionally use a chickee-style of architecture, which is a palmetto thatch roof over a cypress log frame. Demayo explains that chickees aren't only for shelter.
“Cooking chickees are kind of like the heart of the camp. When camps are set up, all the other chickees are pointed at it like an arrow," said Demayo. "But if you look at cooking chickees, they're the only ones that are built differently because they have a pocket on the … to let smoke out.”
Under the cooking chickee, Carla Cypress of the Panther clan is making a dish called Indian Stew over an open flame. It consists of beef boiled until tender and flour dumplings in a seasoned broth.
Cypress says she’s spent her entire life on the reservation, and she prefers to live a more traditional lifestyle.
“Modern ways are OK, but I feel more grounded when I'm closer to what I grew up around," Cypress said. "And my grandmother's watching them cook and smelling the oil or fire on their dresses, and that familiarity. I just want to be like my grandmas, too, one day.”
Cypress encourages anyone to visit the reservation and Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum to experience what Seminole life is really about.
“We invite everybody to enjoy where we come from," Cypress said. "Know that we're here and we're still maintaining, but really, we're still here.”
There's an estimated 575 tribes in the United States today, all with different beliefs, languages and traditions. Demayo said he enjoys changing people's perspective on how they view indigenous people.
“I just try to tell people that we don't live a certain way," Demayo said. "This is my culture. This is my history. These are my people. So, I'm fortunate enough that our museum has tribal members that are able to go out and educate the public telling our narrative.”
The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Reservation is open daily and features educational and historical exhibits and a milelong boardwalk leading to Seminole ceremonial grounds and a living village.
Copyright 2022 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.