At the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation, in the Everglades about an hour west of Fort Lauderdale, the breezes blow softly through the stands of mangroves and hammock trees. And so do the echoes of the centuries – in the stories told, retold and cherished by a proud people.
"The original stories were spun out of real events that happened to us," says Pedro Zepeda, Traditional Arts & Outreach Coordinator for the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Reservation.
"Most have a definite moral to them. Over the years, some stories have been kept up, and some have dropped. But one constant story is about how the Creator made the Earth, and the people and animals on it, as well as our own people."
These people, descendants of the Creek nation, started arriving in the Everglades in the late 1700s, as European settlers in Georgia drove the Creek south. On the journey into Florida, the bands of Creek were joined by occasional escaped slaves, and the Seminole Nation came into being.
Deep in the Everglades, the Seminoles found the isolation from the Europeans they craved – and a new life, although in the early 1800s, they had to fight three wars to keep it. The Seminole Nation to this day is unbowed, the only tribe never to have signed a peace treaty with the U.S. government.
Here in the Everglades, tribal elders passed along the stories of their people to each new generation of storytellers, schooling them around campfires and charging them to stick to the original versions as much as possible.
Storytelling is considered a great responsibility. That's why its practitioners, such as Betty Mae Jumper, born in 1923 and still telling stories to the younger generations, are so greatly respected in the tribe.
Jumper, a member of the Panther Clan, is considered by some to be the best-known living storyteller, and a highly esteemed link between generations past and present.
Many of the stories revolve around tribal leaders or warriors from the 1800s, such as Osceola, Sam Jones and Wildcat (Coacooche).
"Our stories are about who we are, and where we came from," Zepeda says. "I first heard stories while sitting at the campfire, listening to my grandmother. She used to tell me that people and animals originally had the ability to communicate, but that we don't hear the animals anymore because we've lost our ability to listen. And I still try to re-tell her stories as faithfully as possible."
These days, there's a new generation of storytellers, like Zepeda, all in their 30s. People such as Billy Walker, Ollie Wareham and Herbert Jim tell many of the old stories but, sometimes, with a bit of personal interpretation tossed in. Willie Johns, for instance, often incorporates comedy into the tales he tells as Outreach Coordinator for Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki at the tribe's Brighton Reservation, 30 miles north.
"When you have to talk about 500 years of history in an hour," Johns says, "you have to figure out ways to keep your listeners involved. I grew up in the 50s, listening to the stories told by my uncles around the campfire. It's important that I pass these stories along. And I'll tell the stories of our people to anyone who wants to listen."
Johns says that in his own youth most of the older generation was very busy simply trying to survive, to support their families. So, as the years passed, there were fewer practitioners of this ancient art.
"Now," Johns says, "some of the youth get their stories from books, rather than from people. But it's definitely encouraging to see storytellers in their young adulthood continuing the tradition."
Some of the greatest stories are told in the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki ("place of learning") Museum. Here, the dioramas of village scenes and dances are so realistic you almost expect the figures to start telling stories themselves. Amid the displays of old tools, jewelry, instruments, dresses and ceremonial items, there's even a touch-screen display where you can listen to stories.
And if you walk outside and follow the boardwalk through the mangroves to the ceremonial grounds and the crafts village, you may even be lucky enough to hear a real storyteller.
"As long as there are Seminoles," Zepeda says, "there will be stories. And as long as there are stories, there will be people to tell them."
A Seminole Story, from Betty Mae Jumper...
"This story was told to me by my grandmother when I was just a baby," Jumper says. "Where we lived, the sounds in the woods were very important to us. We were always asking, ‘What is that sound from?' A lot of times we were answered with a story such as this one…
"The little green frog was sitting on the edge of the water lilies, sleeping away. A big ol' rabbit came hopping along, came upon the frog and said, 'Hi there! Why are you sleeping? It's too pretty a day to sleep. Wake up! Wake up!'
"'I don't have to do anything,' said the irritated little frog. But that pesky ol' rabbit kept on until the little frog got really mad and told him, 'I'll fix you up.'
"So little frog started singing his funny little song or noise he makes to call the rain. Within a few minutes, the black cloud came and the wind started blowing. Then the rains came and soaked the ol' rabbit so much he got cold and ran home.
"Whenever you hear the frogs singing away today, better be near shelter, because they are warning you that rain is coming soon."
If You Go
What: Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum
Where: On the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, 34725 West Boundary Rd., Clewiston
Steve Winston has written or contributed to 17 books. His articles have appeared in major media all over the world.