Miccosukee Arts Festival Filled with Dance, Music and Alligators

By Sandra Hale Schulman
- News From Indian Country -

Deep in the heart of the Florida Everglades, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida hosted their annual Indian Arts & Crafts Festival at the Miccosukee Indian Village.

The weeklong fest was filled with music, dance, arts and crafts as well as authentic native foods, alligator wrestling demonstrations and the beautiful wildness of the Everglades. With over 45 vendors, performers and demonstrators, this is the largest gathering of its kind in South Florida. The festival village grounds are spacious and colorful with a museum, painted totems, carved otters and canoes, a large alligator pool where the wrestling demonstrations happen and multiple food vendors. The cuisine included “Gator Platters” and frog legs along with fry bread.

The emphasis this year was on dance as featured artists included the knockout White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers from Winslow, Arizona. Born and raised on the White Mountain Apache reservation in the Whiteriver community of North Central Arizona, Joe Tohonnie, Jr. was the host as he draws inspiration for performing from his culture. His grandfather, Stacey Classey, was a medicine man who sang traditional Apache songs, and his father Joe Tohonnie Sr. shared traditional Navajo songs with him.

Both Apache and Navajo influences of songs have brought Tohonnie, Jr. full circle to find his personal voice as he narrates the performance with a graceful mixture of explanation, praise, encouragement and messages of unity. In addition, his Dzilth Ligai White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers are his family, they honor their traditional values and their integrity with who they are and what they represent.

Miccosukee Dolls

All Photos by Sandra Schulman

Apache Indians who perform White Mountain Spirit healing rites acquire the masked images they personify through personal vision. Mountain Spirit masks are buckskin hoods painted black, that fit snugly over the head and are secured by a drawstring gathered about the neck. Tiny holes are cut for the eyes and for the mouth. Attached to the top of the hood is a complex upright structure of wooden slats, brightly painted and decorated, sometimes referred to as horns. On each side hang short wooden slat earrings that strike against one another, making the distinctive sound of the approaching Mountain Spirits. Their bodies are painted black with crosses and bells attached to their belts and feet.

One  “White Painted”  dancer mask differs from the others, being made of scraped buckskin and decorated with big ears. The clown is the servant and messenger for the other dancers. They chant and pay homage to the four directions with bird calls and stomping.

After the mesmerizing performance the audience was invited to form a big circle around the arena then the White One went around and shook blessings into every persons hands.

The featured hoop dancer was Ascencio Harjo, a member of the Six Nations First Nation, Harjo learned both hoop dancing and basketball at a very young age. He was just two years old the first time he saw hoop dancing. That’s when he was travelling with his mom and dad throughout France because his father, Adrian Harjo, was hoop dancing on a tour.

“Watching and being around this native culture and dancing, I just took after it and started dancing. I was hoop dancing. My dad showed me how to do everything.”

Kids pose in Miccosukee cut out at the festival.

Colorful and energetic, the next featured performers were the Native Pride Dancers, an internationally known high-energy show featuring a blend of modern and traditional Native American dance styles. The performers’ regalia are adorned with vivid assortments of brightly-colored ribbons, feathers, and beads, and furs; all of which honor the nations’ elders and the legacy of traditional arts. Their dance show is contemporary, yet primal. The announcer brought out several different dancers, describing their heritage and performance. After the show the whole troupe posed for photos with festival goers.

The Miccosukee are in a unique situation as most of their reservation lands are underwater, so they have to take advantage of what they have. The Everglades provide swamp tours and airboat rides which were started by their first chief Buffalo Tiger, food (gator, catfish, frogs, turtles) as well as pay a major part in the eco system of the state, filtering water from the rivers and lakes into the ocean. They have a small casino resort and produce beautiful unique rick rack hand sewn clothing. Gator hides are another big business and like the plains buffalo they use all the parts of the animal. They eat them, wrestle them, adorn themselves with them, wearing the teeth and skins.

The small but proud tribe has survived, thrived and flourished in their watery heat infused world. The annual arts festival is their way of showing off, giving back and giving thanks.

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