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'Where are the tipis?' Tribe members look to demystify and educate on Seminole heritage

Carla Cypress
Tara Calligan
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.

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.”

Chandler Demayo is a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The 20-year-old works as an educator at the Big Cypress Reservation’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. He grew up on the Hollywood reservation and went to school in the city, so questions about his Seminole 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,” said Demayo.

Chandler Demayo_THUMBNAIL.png
Tara Calligan
Chandler Demayo is a museum educator at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. At the living village on the big Cypress Reservation, he describes the traditional Seminole clothing he is wearing. "This is a turn of the century style, big shirt that is still in use today, but only usually by people who want to wear it or older generation who grew up wearing it," said Demayo. "This style was popular from around the 1900s all the way to the 1940s was kind of where it faded out. It is a large man's one-piece tunic that only men wear it. Typically, they wear one to up to three scarves with it just kind of cover their neck. And since as you can see, there's no pockets, if they needed to carry something, they would just tie it up or have a belt, throw it on there."

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 Chickies are pointed at it like an arrow," said Demayo. "But if you look at cooking Chickies 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.

Carla Cypress making dumplings .jpg
Tara Calligan
Carla Cypress cuts dough with a spatula to make dumplings for a dish called "Indian stew." "It consists of braised beef boy and then boiled," said Cypress. "And then you add dumplings that you made in a pan prior to putting the beef on. And then you boil it for a while so everything gets soft together. And then you add seasoning and it becomes like a little bit of a thick soup with dumplings."

“Modern ways are okay, but I feel more grounded when I'm closer to what I grew up around," said Cypress. "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," said Cypress. "Know that we're here and we're still maintaining, but really, we're still here.”

AhTa Thi Ki.JPG
Special to WGCU

There's an estimated 575 tribes in the United States today, all with different beliefs, languages, and traditions. Demayo says 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," said Demayo. "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 Seminole Indian Reservation is open to visitors seven days a week featuring educational and historical exhibits and a mile-long boardwalk leading to Seminole Ceremonial Grounds and a living village.

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