Hold the Turkey

What does a Seminole "living village" mean?

The Council Oak weathered Hurricane Wilma just fine. This tree, a historic meeting place for Seminole Indians dispersed after 19th-century Indian wars, is still standing broad at the southeast corner of Stirling Road and State Road 7, flanked by a bingo parlor and a discount cigarette shop and just south of the Hollywood Taj Mahal of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, reminders all of the wobbly modern trajectory of Seminole industry.

Thanksgiving seems to inspire annual explorations into traditional Native American life. While New England boasts its Plimoth Plantation time warp, now might be a righteous moment to check in with our local Indians, as condescending as it might be, through the living-history display of the Seminole Okalee Indian Village at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

Since what initially comes to mind when you think of a Seminole Indian village is a remote Everglades encampment, the Okalee village immediately sends an ironic message. It's set not within a leafy natural setting but within the post-modern result of the 20th-century Indian reservation system — the casino.

Victor Billie delivers the sendoff to dreamland.
Dave Amber
Victor Billie delivers the sendoff to dreamland.

To get to the village, you first roam the Hard Rock's grounds and park in the garage. Then you circumnavigate slot halls drowned in cigarette smoke and the sounds of Warrant's "Cherry Pie" before making your way through the cluster-fuck of the Seminole Paradise's theme bars to the complex's far corner. Once there, after you pay admission, you'll pass through gift-shop displays of slingshots and beaded friendship bracelets (noting "Unconquered Spirit" on some) before finally heading out the back door into a concrete maze of zoo cages and displays.

In the village section, with its "chickee" huts topped by palm frond roofs reminiscent of Gilligan's Island, Seminole folks have been hired to weave, do beadwork, and cook traditional foods. On any given day, you'll find craftswomen at chickee-shaded tables and a campfire blazing away.

If you're lucky, around the campfire you'll find maternally loquacious Jo North and young, piercing-riven Jordan Billie, from the Seminole's Hollywood reservation west of the Turnpike, frying up pumpkin cake, a big greasy doughnut made from corn meal, brown sugar, and pumpkin pie mix. These two are also quick to point out another traditional delicacy — Spam. Why Spam? "It's easy to catch," North jokes.

Jordan Billie is proud to say that, although he studied culinary arts in college, he first learned cooking from his great-grandmother. "Ever since I was young, I wanted to cook this way," he gleams, indicating the open cooking fire. Unlike over-the-top living-history sites like Plimoth Plantation, these folks aren't acting. They're just doing normal stuff, which, although inviting, makes you feel patronizingly voyeuristic.

After all, Seminole, you'd learn from surfing the tribe's website, means "free people," and before European colonization, there may have been up to 200,000 "free people" living in what would later become Florida. Disease, wars, and genocidal campaigns of forced migration have meant that, centuries later, an estimated 3,000 members remain on five reservations, including Hollywood's.

Another thing you'll learn from this adventure is that, to feed their families, Seminoles turned to varied pursuits, including the catching and selling of alligators, a hazardous line of work whose violence has since evolved into tourist-friendly alligator wrestling matches. These matches have become another village highlight, proudly presented in its scary amphitheater.

The amphitheater, a menacing metal Thunderdome cone of bleacher seats, funnels down to a murky pool of water in which an eight-foot gator vainly hides. What seems at first to be a cool prospect — alligator wrestling, how fun! — actually turns out to seem cruel as you watch the pathetic creature dragged out.

Like an interrogated Abu Ghraib prisoner, the gator's mouth tape is removed before he's manhandled by the alligator wrestler, an expression of "Please kill me now!" planted on his face right up to the final humiliation of the — where's PETA when you need them? — "Sleeping Beauty" hold. The Sleeping Beauty hold unjustly seals this sad experience as the wrestler pushes on the alligator's belly to cut blood flow to his brain and knock him out. Yikes.

"Years ago, we used to catch them in the wild and then sell them for $100," the wrestler, a charming Victor Billie (no relation to the young cook) might tell you after the show. "That was a lot of money back then." Hmm. Because alligator wrestling evolved from the disparate and desperate activities pursued by Seminoles to make a living, it adds more fuel to your visit's trenchant question: What the hell does it mean to come to this living village and watch these people do these things?

It's one thing to snicker at middle-aged Massachusetts white guys playing "ye olde blacksmith," but it's a much different game to become voyeurs into the real lives of people whose ancestors were the subject of extermination campaigns. The Okalee village reeks of patronizing sadness. Do you dare ask the discomforting questions you want to ask about how they really live now?

The answer is that you should. If you choose to venture into this experience, then discomfort is the worthy take-home message. And if you exert some effort by talking to the Seminole "actors" about their lives — especially if you meet Jo North and Jordan Billie cooking pumpkin cake over the fire — you'll be snapped out of bloodless "living history" for some conversation about the real world.

 
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