Location: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida
General Description: Established 15 years ago, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum chronicles the history and culture of the Seminole Indians in South Florida. The experience begins with the movie “We Seminoles” that provides the oral history and traditions of the Seminoles. The Seminole Indians emerged as a result of an ethnogenesis process from displaced Indians beginning in the early 18th century. As European settlers pushed west in the Carolinas, Indian refugees began migrating into northern Florida where the native Indians had been decimated by the Spanish due to wars, disease, slavery, and leaving for the Caribbean. Most significant were refugees from the Lower Creek nations in Georgia in the second half of the 18th century. These Creek Indians intermingled with the Choctaw and other remnants of the indigenous Indian populations to create what became known as the Seminole Indians. The tribe was further supplemented during the later part of the 18th century by free blacks and escaped slaves who were known as the Black Seminoles. Following American Independence the pressure from settlers increased in Florida leading to the Seminole Wars. The first Seminole War was primarily fought in Georgia and Alabama by General Andrew Jackson against the northern tribes of Seminole Indians. In the 1819 Adams-Onis Treaty, the US acquired Florida from Spain and settlers began pressuring the government to drive the Indians out of Florida. In the 1823 treaty of Camp Moultrie, the US government seized over 24 million acres in northern Florida in exchange for about 100,000 acres Indian reservation in the Everglades, so the Seminoles moved into central and south Florida. This was still not good enough and in 1832 the US government signed the Treaty of Payne’s Landing providing land west of the Mississippi, primarily the Oklahoma territory. The Seminole Indians did not recognize this treaty leading to the Second Seminole War. In 1835 the US Army arrived to enforce the treaty and with over 9000 troops against the approximately 1400 Seminole and Black Seminole forces killed or captured and moved all but about 200 of the Indians from the Everglades swamps. The Second Seminole War lasted over 3 years with the Indians using guerrilla tactics hiding out in the Everglades. The most notable leader, Osceola, was arrested in 1837 while under a flag of truce and died in prison less than a year later at Fort Moultrie in South Carolina. The 200-500 Seminole Indians left in the Everglades continued their way of life deep in the Everglades and except for some brave traders that set up stores along the edge of the Everglades, stayed away from the settlers. While life was difficult, the Seminole Indians in Florida continued to flourish and grow. In 1957 the Seminole Indians in Florida achieved recognition from the Federal government. Since the mid-1930s the Seminoles have raised cattle on the reservations and once Flagler completed the railroad to Miami in the early 20th century leading to a population boom, the Indians were able to sell many of their crafts to tourists. However, these enterprises did little to raise the standard of living of the Seminole Indians. Beginning in 1979, the Seminole Indians began opening casinos on tribal land, which has led to a rapid improvement in their lives. This museum is one example of this. Although being 15 years old, the museum is very well maintained and is very attractive. In addition to the movie, the museum houses a number of well done exhibits about their culture and history. Using mannequins and recreations of historical artifacts the multiple rooms provide a good education. Behind the museum is a 1 mile boardwalk through the cypress dome with interpretive signs about the flora and fauna seen on the trail. At the back of the boardwalk there is a recreation of a Seminole camp used for cultural presentations and events and a area for the local Indians to make and sell the many craft items they are known for.
1) This museum is a must see for anyone interested in the history of the Seminole Indians in Florida, who were never conquered. They have a proud tradition and it is exemplified by this museum. Although it is 15 years old, it appears new and the exhibits are expertly done.
2) The boardwalk is about the best we have ever seen. The interpretive signs along the boardwalk are about every 10 feet and provide a wealth of information about the flora and fauna. When possible they have placed a marker next to or on the plant so it can be easily identified. The information provided includes uses made by the Seminole Indians and other known uses. After over an hour on the boardwalk, which is only about a mile loop, I felt overwhelmed by the amount of information.
3) The area at the back of the boardwalk was nice, but in January there was almost no activity, even on a Saturday. There was only a single craftswomen working on a basket in the craft area. She did have a few items for sale, but the was room for another two craftsmen in that booth along with two other large booths. I assume that during other times of the year there would be more activity in this area, in which case it would be add a lot to the experience.
4) Along the boardwalk there is a side-trip to an Observation Building where you can see the curators at work. Unfortunately, there was no activity while we were there, so there was not much to see except for a couple of signs and exhibits about the tools they use to preserve artifacts.