Seminole Tribe Flexes Tourism Muscles With Alligator Wrestling Exhibit

Gators on display at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum (Photo by Sandra Hale Schulman)

Tourism intersects ecology on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, where visitors can explore the untamed Florida Everglades preserved by the Seminole Tribe. Nestled in the heart of the Everglades, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum showcases more than 180,000 unique artifacts and archival items.

Most recently, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum debuted a new exhibit, “Alligator Wrestling: Danger. Entertainment. Tradition,” which explores the Seminole Tribe’s connection to alligators. The exhibit — open to the public until December 2020 — reveals how alligator wrestling initiated and how it continues to preserve culture and tradition. 

As Carrie Dilley, Visitor Services and Development Manager for the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, previously told Native Business contributor Sandra Hale Schulman: 

“People could come and see how the Seminoles lived here in the open chickee hut villages, how they cooked, made crafts, hunted alligators and performed ceremonies. Those are still here, living villages where we share the history and culture.” 

Alligator in the Everglades (Photo Courtesy the Seminole Tribe’s Billie Swamp Safari)

Dilley continued: “In 1997, we opened the Museum as a repository for key pieces of our history. We now have over 180,000 items including photos, baskets, weapons and the oldest piece, a letter from the 1700s.”

In the Seminole language, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki means “a place to learn,” and “a place to remember.” 

The museum’s substantial Seminole Indian Library and Archives, displays, films and dioramas with life-size figures in vintage costumes garnered Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum designated a Smithsonian Institution Affiliate, with accreditation from the American Association of Museums bestowed in 2005, “which is a big deal to us as they have very stringent requirements,” Dilley said. 

While the Seminole population is under 1,000 people on Big Cypress, the largest of the five Seminole reservations in the state, visitors to the museum topped 17,000 last year. The museum’s events, in November during National Native American Indian Heritage Month, particularly their annual American Indian Arts Celebration, brings in thousands of visitors to see crafts such as the unique patchwork and rickrack-trimmed clothing, pre-contact food cooking demonstrations (heart of palm, turtle and deer), canoe carving demonstrations with Pedro Zepeda and weaponry demos in archery with Jake Osceola. Hunting traditions are demoed by Daniel Tommie in the hunting camp.

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum will host a reception to commemorate the opening of the “Alligator Wrestling: Danger. Entertainment. Tradition” exhibit  on Saturday, January 11, from 1-4 p.m.

During the reception, a private screening will show the documentary film “Allapatah,” directed by Adam Khalil and Adam Piron, demonstrating how alligator wrestling is a staple of Florida tourism with roots as a means of survival for the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes of Florida. The film chronicles how the alligator wrestling evolved, and considers the ongoing culture of the sport.

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