The feeling of when Disney's Cinderella famously slid her foot into the glass slipper is how Rebecca Fell felt when she was told the Buckskin Declaration, an age-old document the Seminoles used to declare their sovereignty more than 50 years ago, was found after years of being lost.
At the time, Fell, a curator at the Seminole Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, was in the midst of organizing Struggle for Survival, a temporary gallery at the museum highlighting the Seminole's fight for freedom and equality. The Buckskin Declaration was the missing piece she didn't know she needed, similar to Cinderella and her shoe, for the exhibit.
"We had the topic for this exhibit for about two years," she says. "But last spring, in the middle of working on the exhibit, we we're told we were getting this document. It was like Cinderella's foot sliding into her glass slipper. We knew exactly where we we're going to put it: in our exhibit"
Struggle for Survival, which opened in December 2015, explores the travails faced by Seminoles during more than 100 years of war in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Seminoles wanted to live freely on their chosen lands and not move west under the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
The exhibit displays the tactics the Seminoles used to fight the U.S. government and the tools they needed to survive in the hidden Everglades hammocks, demonstrating the strength, ingenuity, and resilience of the Seminole people then and today.
"We've wanted to talk about the Seminole wars for a while," she says. "We tried to form this exhibit on the perspective of the Seminole voice, and how it must have felt for them."
Fell says there has long been an interest in finding the Buckskin Declaration, which puts to paper the years of war and hardship the Seminoles faced in history.
"The wars were about a Seminole's fight for sovereignty," she says. "It was about their right to live their life the way they see fit on land that their ancestors lived on. And the document made years later basically says that too."
The Buckskin Declaration, hand-delivered to President Eisenhower in Washington, DC in March 1954, fought his Indian Termination and Relocation Policy. A few years later, the Miccosukee Seminoles successfully retained their sovereignty and culture, and developed into two modern-day Florida tribes: the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida. But for years, what happened to the Buckskin Declaration after it was presented to President Eisenhower was unknown. Now, the document is on loan to the museum from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library.
"We know the document was given to President Eisenhower," she says. "But somewhere along the lines it became lost until this past spring. The tribal government had spent a lot of time trying to find it, and now it finally happened"
At the exhibit's opening ceremony on January 16, more than 200 people attended, including family of those who helped create the declaration.
"It was so moving," she says. "There are so many different stories that are affected by this document. It serves as a foundation, and it just means so much to the people."
Struggle for Survival
Struggle for Survival is on display through November 2016 at the Seminole Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum (30290 Josie Billie Hwy, PMB 1003, Clewiston.) The museum is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. For more information, visit ahtahthiki.com or call 877-902-1113.