By Eileen Soler
BIG CYPRESS — Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum was open for busy days Nov. 6-7, but visitors also packed the parking lot, chickee village and nearby field for the venue’s 18th annual American Indian Arts Celebration.
Nearly 1,800 turned out for the two-day happening that heralded everything Seminole plus artists and performers from other Tribes.
“It’s the biggest event we have all year. Some people who have never been here check us out and some repeat visitors look forward to it year after year,” said Museum operations manager Annette Snapp.
Organizers said about 500 more guests attended compared to last year. In all, 44 clothing, craft and fine art vendors filled a marketspace. Seven booths offered information about the Tribe and Native American causes. Guests traveled from as far as Italy, France and Germany.
Tampa medicine man Bobby Henry opened festivities with a friendship Stomp Dance that encouraged guests to hold hands and move together as one force.
Snapp said the 2015 celebration offered several new surprises.
Festival-goers were greeted at the entry with free tastings of frybread and sofkee, which allowed Museum staff and Tribe representatives a chance to provide a warm reception. Unlike previous years, most guests eventually walked a path in both directions – to the festival and to see the Museum’s permanent and temporary exhibits inside the Museum walls.
“We never realized there was so much to see,” said Biliana Savov, of Jupiter, who visited with her husband, Peter, and children Sophia, 7, and Alex, 11.
For the first time since the yearly event began in 1997, a pop-up gallery was included. “Seminole Spirit,” featuring photographic works captured in Big Cypress by fashion photographer Russell James, was expanded from a triptych in the Museum’s Mosaic Gallery to a 20-piece showcase in an outdoor exhibition tent.
An early morning bird-watching stroll with Kim Willis and Rhonda Roff, of the Hendry-Glades Audubon Society, was another first. Roff said 24 bird species were sighted from the common grackle to the ruby-throated hummingbird.
Jon Yeager, of the Historic Hernando Preservation Society, said the bird tour inspired his first trip to Big Cypress Reservation though he has read about the Seminole Tribe since 2006.
“Looking into the cypress domes was like walking into a whole new world. It reminded me of what I read about the Seminoles and how they lived and still live here,” Yeager said.
Bleachers were lined in front of a main stage where entertainment played throughout the day.
Tribe member Rita Youngman performed original songs that retold stories passed down from elders and other songs that captured the essence of contemporary Native issues. Cypress Billie took up the guitar both days to play and sing tunes his father, Chairman James E. Billie, made familiar throughout the Tribe, such as “Big Alligator,” or “Halapata Chobee.”
Members of at least eight Tribes throughout Indian Country were recognized.
The Warriors of AniKituhwa, tribal ambassadors of the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina, provided interactive authentic dances and a game of chance using butterbeans that were tossed in a basket then counted for points.
“We talk to people and educate them about us. I hope they learn that even though we are all Native Americans, we are different. All Tribes are different,” Micah Swimmer said.
All performances included information about the individual history, culture and plight of Tribes. For instance, the Big Cypress Martial Arts group performed dressed as 17th century Seminoles and Army soldiers. Led by Charlie Osceola, the group demonstrated how Seminoles used their knowledge of the environment and hunting tools as weapons against Army troops during the Seminole Wars.
Seminole members Jessica Osceola and Elgin Jumper were on hand to show and sell their fine art pieces.
Leonard Peltier’s art was represented by his son Chauncey Peltier, of Oregon. The elder Peltier is in his 40th year of imprisonment on charges stemming from the 1975 killings of two FBI agents in Pine Ridge.
Last year, Chauncey Peltier began crisscrossing art shows throughout the United States collecting petition signatures to support a presidential pardon for his father, whose controversial imprisonment has been the source of several books, films and songs.
Other noted works on display included paintings by the late Rex Begaye, bronze sculptures by Bradley Cooley and his son Bradley Cooley Jr., and photographs from the collection of Woody Hansen.
Seminole Nation of Oklahoma Principal Chief Leonard Harjo popped in with his wife, Sheila, to reconnect with old friends and the land. Harjo, in South Florida for the National Indian Gaming Association mid-year conference, said he had not attended the arts celebration since 2007.
“There are 20,000 of us scattered all over the place. We’re separate recognized Tribes, but we have shared ancestral lines and shared language. Coming to Big Cypress is like going to the homeland. We still get the feeling of being connected,” Chief Harjo said.
Snapp said the Museum staff is already working on the 19th annual American Indian Arts Celebration, likely to be held Nov. 4-5, 2016.
“We were so fortunate to have had such a strong set of performers and artists of all kinds this year. People were so generous to come and participate that they made it happen. Now we are getting the calendar ready for 2016,” Snapp said.