From a small tribe that lived in chickee huts in the Everglades to the owners of the international billion-dollar Hard Rock brand, the Seminole tribe has made an indelible mark on the culture of the Sunshine State. Visit their reservation and casinos to trace their triumphant story.
About halfway between Naples and Miami on Interstate 75, a sign for Billie Swamp Safari is the only hint that more than ’gators are in this flat grassy swampland. The exit connects to a lonely two-lane road that leads to the heart of the Seminole Nation, the Big Cypress Reservation.
Any journey into the Seminole experience most aptly starts at the tribe’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the reservation. In Seminole, the name ah-tah-thi-ki means a place to learn, and it was built primarily to educate tribal members about their heritage. Although as a Smithsonian affiliate museum, it has taught people worldwide about the tribe’s fabled history and unique culture.
The museum’s film We Seminoles captures the tribe’s vibrant spirit and tells of their struggles to remain in Florida during the federal government’s mass relocation of Native Americans in the 19th century. Despite famous warrior Osceola’s capture, the Seminoles never gave up and never signed a treaty, but they were pushed deeper into the Everglades where their numbers dwindled.
Outside on a one-mile boardwalk through a 66-acre cypress dome, visitors learn about popular Seminole plants on the way to a living village that shows what the early Seminole tourist villages were like. Stick around to watch tribal arts and crafts being made and hear legendary stories from tribal members.
The exhibit Tools of War is a new addition to the museum. It focuses on the development of gun technology during the three Seminole wars.
Billie Swamp Safari
Perhaps there’s no better way to sense what it’s like living in the swamp than riding through it at Billie Swamp Safari. Airboats and swamp buggies are a far cry from the Seminole’s traditional hollowed-out canoes; these take you deeper into the wild to see alligators and native birds. The safari opens 2,200 acres of the tribe’s reservation for the public to explore. If you dare, take a tour at night when glowing eyes peer at you from all sides.
Back at the camp, watch men wrestle alligators, taste ’gator nuggets and fry bread in the rustic Swamp Water Café. At night, sit around a roaring campfire and listen to Seminole lore. Fall asleep in an authentic chickee hut to the sound of hooting owls and croaking bullfrogs.
Strolling into a slot-whistling casino decorated with Eric Clapton’s guitars, Madonna’s outfits, and memorabilia from other rock greats, it’s a little hard to believe it belongs to the same Native American tribe that more than 50 years prior struggled to survive.
The Seminole Tribe’s court victory to operate bingo halls is credited with opening up legalized gambling to Native American tribes across the nation. Today, banks of slot machines with game-show themes and rows of table games where a flip of a card can double your money fill their cavernous Hard Rock casinos in Tampa and Hollywood. The tribe also has smaller casinos in Immokalee, Brighton and Coconut Creek, but the Hard Rock casinos are its stars. They offer penny to $100 slots, high-stakes poker and $50 blackjack tables, snazzy nightclubs, upscale restaurants, high-rise suites, poolside chickee cabanas, auto salons, spas and enough rock memorabilia to keep music fans gawking for hours.
Lest they or visitors forgot the tribe’s roots and struggles for modern success, a smaller version of Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum with tours and events is nestled amidst the shops of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood.