Adventure on the Edge of Big Cypress Swamp 

By Dorothy Smiljanich


Seminole Indian history
Tips for the Trip
Safari teaches about Seminole lifestyle

Stay on a Seminole Indian reservation in the Big Cypress Swamp? Sleep in a chickee? Tour a wildlife preserve?

How interesting, how exciting, how out of the ordinary. And who better than the Seminole Indians to introduce visitors to - and guide them through - the wonders of the watery, wild world that they have long called home?

With those thoughts in mind, we hastened to accept an invitation from the Seminole Tribe of Florida to attend the ``grand opening festivities'' at Billie Swamp Safari and Camping Village on a 2,000-acre piece of the Big Cypress Reservation. We went on Saturday with high hopes and came home on Sunday with mixed feelings.

SEMINOLE HISTORY
The Seminoles are descended from Indians, many of them Creek, who fled from throughout the South into the wilderness that was Florida in the 18th and 19th centuries. They came to escape incursions, disruptions, battles and wars. Eventually they found refuge in the southernmost reaches of Florida and there built a way of life that included farming, hunting, fishing and trading.

Recognized officially by the U.S. government in 1957, the Seminole Tribe of Florida is now a nation of fewer than 2,000 people, according to tribal publications, and most of them live on or near the tribe's five Florida reservations - in Tampa, Brighton, Immokalee, Hollywood and Big Cypress. The largest of the reservations, Big Cypress encompasses more than 52,000 acres and is home to 430 Seminoles.

Although Seminole enterprises include citrus groves and cattle ranches, the most lucrative operations by far are bingo and other gaming enterprises, as well as cigarette sales, according to tribe figures.

Now, with Billie Swamp Safari, the Seminoles are trying to attract more tourism revenue, too. The hope is that visitors from this country and abroad will be interested enough in things Seminole to spend some time and money visiting the complex.

CHICKEE LODGINGS
We certainly were. We slept in a chickee without electricity or plumbing and enjoyed the uniqueness of the experience, although we wondered whether it would be quite so enjoyable during the humid, hot, bug-busy months of summer.

Built off the ground on wooden pilings, the naturally ventilated chickee featured a palm-frond thatched roof, screened sides with wooden-slatted shutters and an old-fashioned screened door with hook-and-eye lock. Furnishings in the single-room chickee included two twin beds, mosquito netting, hanging lanterns and clothing hooks. Linens, including sheets, blankets and towels, were provided, and everything was scrupulously clean and neat.

Our chickee was one of several dwellings strung along the edge of a dirt road running from one side of the main compound, where the Seminoles have cleared several acres of land and created what they billed as ``a beautiful camping village which resembles an authentic native American Indian village of ancient times.'' Included in the village were dormitory-style chickees that could easily accommodate families or groups.

The village was best entered through a large, thatch-roofed welcome center. There, visitors were greeted and given access to orientation materials and videos. Nearby were an outdoor gift shop with a small collection of Seminole-made items, including beadwork jewelry, small dolls and the distinctive patchwork clothing for which the tribe is famous; an archery and blow-gun range; and basic but ample shower and restroom facilities (only portable toilets dotted the road that led to our chickee).

SWAMP DINING
Central to the village compound was a large, air-conditioned and comfortable restaurant and bar that looked something like the Cracker Barrel restaurants proliferating along the interstates.

Here meals were served buffet-style. The luncheon menu included ``Indian Taco'' (fry-bread topped with ground beef and trimmings), ``Indian Burger'' (fry-bread stuffed with ground beef and onions), fried chicken fingers and salads. Dinner included barbecued ribs and chicken, potato salad, baked beans and corn, while breakfast featured ``Ranchera Eggs'' (scrambled eggs, pepper and onions) with salsa on the side; ham and bacon; grits and toast.

The food was good, plentiful and pleasantly served.

Built with generous proportions of stone, glass and wood, the handsome restaurant also featured a small stage in one corner where performers including James E. Billie, the powerful and talented Seminole chairman, entertained guests during opening weekend.

On the wide veranda outside, large rocking chairs invited visitors to relax and, from that vantage point, overlook the rest of the village, as well as its adjacent canals and small lake.

VILLAGE ACTIVITIES
Nearby, a thatch-roofed amphitheater was designed to serve chiefly as an entertainment emporium. Folk singer-guitarist Don Grooms from Gainesville and accompanists performed a laid-back and enjoyable set the evening we were there.

Other diversions included alligator wrestling on grounds near the lake. Some guests had their photographs taken with the gator and, although many audience members seemed to enjoy the show, visitors sensitive to animal rights may find such demonstrations unappealing, at the least.

What we liked best of the village activities was the evening storytelling session with Josiah Jumper. As visitors gathered around the warmth of the campfire in a large and open chickee in the middle of the compound, Jumper told stories of his life and people. He shared anecdotes about life in a village deep in the Everglades when he was a youngster; spoke of changes that have come recently to the traditional Seminole way of life; and patiently fielded questions from enthralled listeners.

With his quiet dignity and modest demeanor, Jumper wove a gentle spell over his audience. As the campfire drove back the darkness and warmed the circle of listeners, this session seemed to recall a more primitive, more creative time - a time long before the mindless babble of television had replaced the sound of the human voice telling ancient tales, weaving gentle spells and drawing the people together.

Even a joke Jumper told - ``Why did the chicken cross the road?'' - seemed natural and a bit of genuine Floridiana. The answer: ``To prove to the armadillo it could be done.''

SWAMP SAFARIS
Speaking of armadillos, we saw one on the daytime swamp buggy ride. It is noteworthy because we saw few other living creatures. Among them were a few birds that were flushed out of the bushes by our noisy approach and a tiny green frog that fell into the buggy as it careened under a canopy of trees.

During both the daytime and nighttime excursions, the buggies we rode - the village operates several - carried more than a dozen people into the wilderness for more than an hour. Between the roar of engines and the shrieks of passengers, the chances of seeing many animals seemed minimal. On the night ride, however, bright lights were used to spot wildlife. A number of animals, including exotic species imported from abroad, were spotted.

Almost as if they were on an amusement park ride, many passengers laughed as the swamp buggy mowed through grasses, muddied small streams and crashed through overhanging branches. Many visitors, both young and old, seemed to enjoy the rides.

We were not among them. We had hoped the tour would provide the rare opportunity to see plants and animals in an undisturbed ecosystem and to move among the natural world in quiet appreciation.

How much more to our liking would have been a wooden boardwalk or dirt trail built into the swamp so that visitors could wander at their own pace; a naturalist, amateur or professional, on hand to lead informed daytime tours and quiet walks under the splendor of the relatively unpolluted night sky; an orientation program explaining the natural history of the Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades; and some serious insight into the history of the Seminoles themselves, as well perhaps as demonstrations of tribal arts and crafts, including basket weaving, beadwork, patchwork clothing and chickee building.

A tremendous amount of inspiration, energy and hard work has gone into the creation of Billie Swamp Safari. It is obvious in the cleared and landscaped grounds; in the sturdy, attractive buildings; in the plentiful and tasty food; and in the bounteous generosity, warmth and talent of many of the people who work there. The idea of inviting outsiders onto the reservation to learn about the Seminoles and to share some of the reservation's natural beauty is a splendid, even visionary one.

As we were there in February 1995 when the park was just opening and as some programs are still being developed, some facilities still being built, some changes still being made, we still have high hopes for Billie Swamp Safari and wish the tribe well with this project.

If the Seminoles succeed, if they make this undertaking the invaluable educational experience it could be for visitors, if they give this state - indeed, the whole world - an opportunity to appreciate the natural world in an attitude if not of reverence, then at least of informed respect for the lives of the animals and plants sharing this Earth with human beings, they will bring honor to themselves and they will probably make a lot of money, too.

If they fail, if they turn their special place into just another tourist attraction, they may well make a lot of money anyway, but what a pity, what a terrible irony, that would be.

Of course, exploitation of the environment has a long history in this state, and not among the Indians: The traveler headed to Billie Swamp Safari drives through the northern reaches of the Everglades, through prime Florida panther territory, and may be lucky enough there to see alligators sunning themselves by roadside canals, large stands of trees hung with air plants, and great wild birds - hawks, herons and even wood storks - soaring overhead.

But such sights, like the panther itself, are growing rarer.

Straight, cruel and convenient, Alligator Alley ripped through and destroyed much of this once-pristine region. The road's 75-cent toll - less than a penny a mile - is far too cheap, considering the damage done by opening this priceless realm to so many cars, people and pollution. If there were any fairness in this world, that 75-cent toll would be much, much higher, say $100 or more a car - if only to prove that while Floridians don't mind selling out, we at least expect to be paid well for it.

Against such a background, is it any wonder we hope the Seminoles will take a higher road and show the rest of us a better way to go.


TIPS FOR THE TRIP
HOW TO GET THERE

  • Billie Swamp Safari and Camping Village is about 225 miles or a 3 1/2-hour drive from Tampa.
  • We took Interstate 75 south to Naples, then headed east on Alligator Alley, which now is part of I-75.
  • At the Snake Road intersection (there is a big Amoco station there), we headed north about 20 miles, following the road into the reservation.
  • After some twists and turns, we arrived at the Billie Swamp Safari complex; watch for directional signs at roadside.
  • WHAT IT COSTS
    • Several options are available for visitors, ranging from a swamp buggy ride for $15 to overnight chickee-stays including all meals and entertainment for $109.
    • Reservations are suggested.
    • The restaurant also is open to visitors.
    FOR MORE INFORMATION
    • For reservations and information about activities and schedules, write Billie Swamp Safari and Camping Village, HC-61, Box 46, Clewiston, Fla. 33440. The telephone number is (813) 983-6101 or (800) 949-6101

    Safari teaches about Seminole lifestyle
    By Dorothy Smiljanich

    For more information

    BIG CYPRESS RESERVATION - The huge swamp buggy lumbers out of the parking lot into the dark night of the Everglades, bearing dozens of passengers in search of whatever the evening might turn up - perhaps deer, armadillo, a raccoon or a gopher tortoise, and certainly one of the clearest views of the Milky Way in the state.

    The adventure - unique in all the world because the 'glades are unique in all the world - also is one of the best opportunities to learn about Florida's Seminole Indians.

    The complex, which opened a few years ago, is called Billie Swamp Safari. Here, in addition to the swamp buggy ride, guests can watch alligator wrestling demonstrations; learn about Florida's snakes - poisonous and non - in a comfortable, indoor arena; sit around a campfire at night and hear tales of the tribe's past; dine on Indian ``tacos'' (among more traditional fare at the restaurant); and, if they choose, stay overnight in chickees, the wood-sided, palm frond- topped huts - without water or electricity - that once were traditional Seminole homes.

    Although Florida's aboriginal Indians, including the Calusa and Timucuan, vanished long ago, the Seminoles and the smaller Miccosukee tribe have a colorful history in the state, as well as fascinating cultures that draw visitors from throughout the world to their lands. In brief, these groups descended from the American Indians, many of them Creek, who moved into Florida from throughout the South in the 18th and 19th centuries to escape incursions and disruptions. Some found refuge in the southernmost regions of the state where they built a way of life based on hunting, farming, fishing and trading.

    In 1957, the federal government officially recognized the Seminole Tribe of Florida and today many of its approximately 2,000 people live on or near the tribe's five Florida reservations at Big Cypress, Tampa, Brighton, Immokalee and Hollywood, reservation lands that total more than 90,000 acres.

    Although gambling operations and cigarette sales are the Seminole's major revenue producers, tribal interests also include cattle ranches and citrus groves. The Seminoles are also expanding their efforts to attract, educate and entertain visitors, even as they preserve and secure their own culture. As a result, some reservations open museums, arts and crafts shops and visitor centers to the public.

    With a reservation near the Seminole's Big Cypress, the Miccosukee, who were recognized as a separate tribe by the federal government in 1962, operate an extensive ``Indian Village'' with educational exhibitions, demonstrations and an arts and crafts gift shop on the Tamiami Trail. Nearby options also include a restaurant and airboat rides into the Everglades.

    On some reservations, Indian artists and craftsmen sell handmade items, including woven sweetgrass baskets and palm frond dolls dressed in distinctively bright, patchwork clothing.

    THE FIVE SEMINOLE RESERVATIONS ARE:


    • Big Cypress. The largest of the Seminole lands, this reservation encompasses more than 50,000 acres and is home to some 400 Seminoles. Besides the well- known Billie Swamp Safari complex, which opened in February 1993, it contains cattle pastures, citrus groves, farming areas and a handsome new museum under construction and expected to open later this year.
  • Hollywood. Located on this 497-acre ``urban reservation'' in southwest Broward County are Seminole tribal administrative headquarters and the tribe's current Ah-Tha-Thi-Ki Museum (the name means ``Place to Learn''), designed to preserve and interpret tribal history, language and culture. Opened in 1992, this museum is considered a ``satellite,'' according to the Seminole newsletter, until the Big Cypress facility, which is slated to have ``hundreds of exhibits, thousands of artifacts, large outdoor native villages, a research library and seminar areas,'' is ready. The Hollywood reservation is home to more than 500 Seminoles and is the site of an annual tribal fair and rodeo in February.
  • Tampa: A museum, interpretative center and gift shop, as well as gaming parlor, smoke shop and 276- room Sheraton Hotel are located on this small, 39.4-acre reservation, which was established in 1982 and is home to some 56 Seminoles.
  • Brighton: The center of the Seminole cattle industry, this sprawling 35,805-acre reservation, northwest of Lake Okeechobee, has 392 residents, many of them cattle ranchers, farmers and fishermen, and celebrates Brighton Fields Days, held for a weekend each February and featuring music, dance and games.
  • Immokalee: The newest reservation, placed into the federal trust in 1979, is primarily a residential community and home to 145 residents.
  • FOR MORE INFORMATION
    • For more information, write Seminole Communications, 6333 N.W. 30th St., Hollywood, Fla. 33024 or call (305) 964-1875.
    • For information on Billie Swamp Safari and Camping Village, write HC-61, Box 46, Clewiston, Fla. 33440 or call toll- free (800) 949-6101.
    • For information on the Miccosukee, write P.O. Box 44021, Miami, Fla. 33144 or call (305) 223-8380