By Lauren Tjaden
About an hour west of Fort Lauderdale, nestled deep within the Everglades on the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation, the Smithsonian-affiliated Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum invites you to learn about and celebrate the Seminole Tribe’s proud heritage.
It’s a fascinating journey, where history comes to vivid life.
At Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki, you can hear stories beloved by generations of the Seminole Tribe, colorful tales starring frogs and snakes that impart life lessons; discover a boardwalk that meanders beneath a towering cypress dome, revealing a village where you might find gar sizzling over an open flame; and visit the inside museum to encounter wonders like the intricate beadwork that once adorned an Indian maiden’s neck.
The exhibits are truly epic and immersive, like the ones that depict Seminole life in the 1890s, with more than 40 life-size figures preparing meals, forging silver, playing stickball, and hunting.
Read on to find out why you should put Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki on your must-visit list.
Inside the Museum
In the Seminole language, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki means a place to learn, a place to remember. The 5,000- square-foot space lives up to the moniker with the following offerings.
A good place to start your journey through the museum is in the five-screen orientation theater, which delivers the history of the Florida Seminoles through the film "We Seminoles," produced by the Seminole Tribe of Florida-- including why the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum was created.
Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki showcases nearly 200,000 rare artifacts in a multitude of varieties. You can study the face of the fierce Seminole warrior, Osceola, in an 1838 oil painting; admire a beaded necklace concocted from sixteen strands of Swarovski crystals and twenty-one silver coins; and see everyday tools from the past, like a plain wicker sifting basket.
Life-sized depictions of Seminoles - like a young couple about to be married, stealing their first glimpses of each other- turn back the clock to 1890s Florida, setting you squarely in the action with scenic dioramas, historic artifacts, interpretive text panels and audio effects. These permanent exhibits are elaborate and extensive, including a depiction of the Green Corn Ceremony, an annual, sacred event still practiced among the Tribe today, complete with a whopping fifteen figures performing the Catfish Dance; Seminoles embarking on an overnight hunt; and a family decked out in their finest garb while their canoe glides down a crystalline river to a trading post.
In the West Gallery, an exhibit dedicated to the danger, entertainment and tradition of Alligator Wrestling brings to light the profound relationship of the Seminole and alligators.
Amid the plush toys and collectibles that you can scoop up to commemorate your visit, you’ll find true treasures: distinctive patchwork clothing, beadwork, baskets, woodcarvings and other art forms created by the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes of Florida. One of the most popular items is the Seminole doll, crafted of palmetto husk fiber and adorned in a brightly-colored, traditional skirt and cape.
Take a Peek
Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki’s mile-long, raised boardwalk promises a riveting stroll through the Everglades, with a multitude of chances to soak up the stunning scenery and learn about the Seminole culture. Along the path, interpretive markers explain the uses of native plants for medicine, such as wax myrtle, which can be used as a natural mosquito repellant. The boardwalk is open daily from 9 a.m. through 4 p.m., though occasionally it may be closed due to bad weather. Check out some of its highlights.
The Cypress Dome
In and around the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve, cypress domes sometimes form in shallow depressions where water stands for several months each year. The center of the depression is the deepest, and that’s also where the cypress trees are the tallest and oldest, giving the swamps a dome shape and thus their name. You can see a glorious, 60-acre example of this natural phenomenon on Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki’s boardwalk, with plenty of opportunities to rest and investigate other features along the path.
The Clan Pavilion displays eight panels representing the current Seminole clans: Panther, Wind, Bird, Otter, Bear, Snake, Big Town, and Deer. The panels include information about each clan and drawings of clan animals by Seminole artist Samuel Tommie.
Seminole children inherit the clan of their mothers, making a time-honored, extensive family unit. It’s taboo to marry within a clan, and when the last female in a clan passes on, the clan is considered extinct- which has been the fate of several historical clans, including Alligator. The Panther clan is the biggest in the Seminole Tribe of Florida today.
Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki’s recreated ceremonial grounds are similar to those once used for religious and political events. They encompass several chickees and are centered around an open court for playing stickball, a traditional game for numerous tribes of the Southeast.
Stickball was more than recreation; it often held a colossal role in keeping the peace between tribes who played it, and was employed to settle disputes and grievances as well as to harden young warriors for combat.
Bathrooms are situated close to the Ceremonial Grounds.
This recreated village is a modern version of the Seminole tourist camps that were in vogue in the early to mid-20th century. Usually, Seminole artists are at the village to answer questions and demonstrate traditional arts and crafts. You can buy these wares as well, and some are fabulous finds, like the signature, award-winning baskets crafted from sweetgrass, each utterly unique.
A Hunting Camp depicts the temporary camps that set up by Seminoles during hunting season. It often showcases pelts, plumes, and hides that were used and traded by the Seminoles.
Celebrate Seminole and indigenous art, music and dance at one of Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki’s events, including its signature festival, the American Indian Arts Celebration, held annually in November.
Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki’s educational team strives to connect both Seminole Tribal members and non-tribal members with the museum’s vast, one-of-a-kind resources. Onsite tours and programs as well as a wealth of other of educational resources inspire an awareness of the rich culture and history of the Seminole people- including field trips, museum store goodie bags (with kid-friendly items like Seminole clan temporary tattoos), web resources, and craft activities, where your little ones can create their own beadwork.
When You Go...
What: Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum
Where: On the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, 34725 West Boundary Rd., Clewiston (Note that although the address is ‘Clewiston,’ Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum is located 45 minutes south of the city.)