Miccosukee Indian Arts Festival honored old and new

By Sandra Hale Schulman
- News From Indian Country -

A rare cool breeze blowing through the Everglades brought out thousands of people to the Florida swamps earlier this year for the week long Miccosukee Indian Arts and Crafts Festival, now in its 41st year.

One of my first visits to the festival was over 20 years ago at the invitation of Stephen Tiger who was the head of public relations for the tribe. Stephen and his brother Lee Tiger had a band called Tiger Tiger that was one of the first native rock groups and even played Woodstock in the 1960s. Stephen came back to his tribe to work with his father Buffalo Tiger, who was the first chief that played a risky game to gain the tribe federal recognition after meeting with Fidel Castro and Che Guvera in Cuba in the 1950s.

Stephen was a great painter, his art now hangs in the Museum in the Indian Village. It was bittersweet to see it as Stephen walked on in 2006. But he would be glad to see the festival has grown and prospered, hosting dance troops and artists from all over the US.

The crafts and jewelry were of excellent quality this year, with stone carving from Alaska, exquisite beaded moccasins, and patchwork clothing from the Miccosukee. Patchwork was everywhere, with the men sporting bomber style jackets and little girls running around in skirts their mothers made them paired with cute t-shirts and sneakers.

The tribe invited Steven Paul Judd (Kiowa-Choctaw) of Oklahoma to be the artist in residence all week. He had his own chickee hut open air art studio where he did a series of live paintings and sold his clever posters, stickers and shirts. Judd has made a name for himself by taking American pop culture images and giving them a native twist. Judd was previously a filmmaker who has been making art for the past 6 years. His clothing line of original designs has become very successful, a recent documentary made about him called Dig It If You Can, screened nationwide.

“It’s been great being here,” Judd said on a lunch break. ”This is a major festival. I’m traveling a lot now working with schools and tribes all over so to be in one place for a week is great. I’m making 3 paintings that the tribe will keep.”

Speaking of lunch, there was the usual frybread and hamburger on sale, along with a special of a whole 3-foot hickory smoked gator that feeds up to 4 people for $150. Frogs legs and turtle was also on the menu.

Gators, both live and smoked, were everywhere. They are a mainstay of the tribes livelihood aside from the gambling at the casino resort down the road. Airboat rides take tourists deep out into the swamps to see them, while a large pond in the Village has dozens of them lazily swimming around. A gator wrestling show featured a Miccosukee rasta wrestler who waded into the water to sit on a 10 foot gators back, pull up his head and enormous jaw, pry it open and stick his head inside while the crowd gasped. I asked him later why he still had all his fingers.

“I’ve been lucky I guess,” he said shrugging as he raked the sand in the pen after the show while sage burned for luck in a bowl. “I’ve been bitten 6 times but they never got my fingers.”

A new feature this year is a virtual reality experience where you sit in a painted canoe, don a headset, and are taken on a tour of Miami waterways in that canoe. Look ahead and you see the soaring Miami skyline, murky Miami river, quiet bays and wavy ocean. Look behind you and it’s a fast receding cosmic wormhole.

Over in the open air stadium, I was blown away by the dark power of the White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers, a group of ceremonial dancers from the White Mountains of Arizona, who wear black hoods with crosses painted on their chests, huge wood and wire headdresses designed to look like mountain ranges with birds and animals and clouds rolling through. The bare chested male dancers stomp and chant around a fire to inhabit mountain spirits and ward off evil.

That was followed by a pair of Rainbow Dancers, two sweet faced young women in buckskin dresses with rainbows fastened to their heads.

The day was topped off by The Miccosukee Indian Fashion Show, a mesmerizing history parade of colors and designs of Miccosukee regalia that showcased earliest designs of long skirts and capes to more contemporary styles like mini-dresses and tank tops – all with patchwork. The soundtrack was helped along with everything form flute and drum chanting to upbeat tunes from Buffy Ste. Marie and Taboo.

I booked a room at the resort hotel which was in full celebratory mode. The $12 buffet had sirloin and Peruvian Chicken and flambed plantains. The large comfortable room overlooked the Everglades, pitch black at night looking west with the twinkling distant lights of Miami to the east.
The next day I had a hot stone massage at the spa with burning sage, flute music and sweet smelling oils. A swim in the indoor heated pool and stints in the sauna had me feeling rested and relaxed as visions of Rainbow Dancers ushered in the new year.


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