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Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum celebration dispels myths & celebrates Seminole heritage

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Tara Calligan
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New Zealand’s HAKA Māori Cultural Experience will be part of the American Indian Arts Celebration in Big Cypress. The group will be showcasing demonstrations of the traditional Māori Haka dance, Māori workshops, performing arts, music, visual arts and culture. Here, the group is performing a welcome HAKA in honor of the celebration.

Gordon Wareham is playing a Native American flute, an instrument he’s been perfecting for the last 22 years.

“You give the instrument its breath, and in turn, it gives you a voice,” said Wareham.

Wareham is a Seminole member of the Panther Clan and lives on the Hollywood Florida Reservation. He’s director of the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum here at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation.

Gordon Wareham Seminole member
Tara Calligan
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Gordon Wareham is a Seminole member of the Panther Clan and lives on the Hollywood Florida Reservation. He’s director of the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum here at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation. He is playing the Naïve American flute, an instrument he’s been perfecting for the last 22 years, on the reservation's ceremonial grounds.

The museum’s American Indian Arts Celebration (AIAC) started 20 years ago as a small festival aimed to educate local schools about Seminole culture during Native American Heritage Month. But now, he says, the festival has grown exponentially.

“We're bringing in indigenous people from around the world to come and celebrate this special month with us and educate not just our tribal members, but also local, surrounding communities,” said Wareham.

Six members of New Zealand’s HAKA Māori Cultural Experience are performing a welcome song and dance on the reservation’s ceremonial grounds. The Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand.

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Tara Calligan
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New Zealand’s HAKA Māori Cultural Experience performing a traditional Māori welcome Haka dance.

To see HAKA performed is a visceral experience. The Māori rhythmically move together in unison, stomping their feet and slapping their bodies as they alternately sing and chant. Their expressions are exaggerated with widened eyes and at times sticking out their tongues sharply.

During the celebration, 20 members of the HAKA Māori Cultural Experience will perform for the public. Craig Muntz, the group's director, says HAKA is misunderstood in popular culture.

“A common misconception of HAKA is that it's just a war dance. HAKA is a generic term for dance, and you dance for many different reasons.”

Muntz says the main thing about HAKA and Māori performing arts is the message of the songs. He says songs can be written about topical issues like environmental rights, social justice, and domestic violence. But HAKA is also about joy.

“HAKA is also composed to celebrate and to acknowledge and pay tribute.”

Dispelling myths about indigenous culture and explaining who the Seminole people are today is a great focus for the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.

The Seminoles of Florida are known as the "Unconquered People" as descendants of a few hundred Native Americans who managed to evade capture by the U.S. Army in the 19th century.

Carla Cypress
Tara Calligan
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Seminole member Carla Cypress of the Panther Clan makes a beef stew over open flame at the Seminole Village behind the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Reservation. The village is a modern-day version of the Seminole tourist camps that were popular in the early to mid-20th century. Modern Seminole artists are often present to answer questions and demonstrate traditional arts and crafts.

Right now, more than 2,000 live on six Florida reservations, and close to 700 Seminoles live on the Big Cypress Reservation in the heart of the Everglades.

Wareham says the history about indigenous life is sometimes lost in textbooks, but they’re actively working on correcting the narrative.

“Our story usually ends in 1850," said Wareham. "Right after the third Seminole Wars, we’re not mentioned anywhere. But in Florida, I always have a saying that, ‘we're not part of Florida's history. We are Florida.’ We've always been here. And we will always be here.”

The American Indian Arts Celebration will feature traditional Seminole cuisine, music and fashion, and the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum is displaying a new artifact for the first time: a sash worn by Seminole leader Osceola.

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Tara Calligan
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The Ah-Tah- Thi-Ki Museum received an antique sash claimed to have been worn by Seminole warrior Osceola at the time of his capture. The sash was privately donated in 2019 and is now on display for the firs time. It will be shown in the museum for the next three weeks.

“You come from someplace and someplace special," said Wareham. "That's your lineage. That’s your heritage, and come and learn about yourself and come about learn about the unique culture.”

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