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Survival of the Fittest: Wrestling Alligators in Seminole Country


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Mike Dempsey of Naples shows his stuff
Is tradition taking a back seat to tourism these days in Hollywood, Florida? Seminole Indian Alligator wrestling has opened to the public, and we're not talking about watching it& we mean DOING it! Neda and I stopped by the Seminole village today on their Hollywood Reservation for a glimpse at the tribe's first-ever open Alligator Wrestling auditions. What we found was a modern tribe mixing one part culture with one part education, with three parts moneymaking -- driven by the necessity of economic survival. No longer do you need to be Seminole to slip into the water with a 150-pound American alligator, or even know anything about the history behind the sport. All you need is some strength, a willingness to learn, and a daredevil desire to come face-to-face with a set of 80 carnivorous crocodilian teeth!

The applicants this morning were as colorful as the Seminole's traditional patchwork clothing. Paul from New Jersey was looking for a job, had never touched a gator before, but "liked animals." Mike, playing hookie from his plumbing job in Naples, FL, handled his gator like a well-trained pro. An unnamed local actor walked by in a three-piece suit wondering if he could fill out an application before he had to be at his casting call for a commercial at 1:00.

Mike Osceola is a true Seminole tour guide and alligator wrestler
The Seminole tribe of Florida has used tourist attractions as moneymakers for years. With excellent, informative museums on their reservations in Hollywood and Big Cypress, swamp buggy tours and airboat rides, bingo parlors, gift shops and yes, alligator wrestling, the tribe is able to generate money while educating the public at the same time. But lately, with extra shows being added, there haven't been enough tribal members eager to grapple with the reservation's gators. So the tribe put an ad in the newspaper looking for applicants for the six gator-wrestling positions available. They received lots of responses, as we saw at the tryouts today, but Neda and I wondered if the tourists the Seminole need will still flock to see a non-Seminole up against a gator? In the September 13, 2000 Gainesville Sun, columnist Carl Hiaasen remembers seeing the shows as a kid in the 1960s. As a child he believed that "grappling with gators required not only courage and lightening reflexes, but certain hypnotic powers found only among a few chosen Seminole..." Would today's public find the matches as mystical without a true Seminole warrior facing off with the gator in that pool?

The Seminole relationship with alligators developed 200 years ago as they shared a home in southern Florida's wetlands. Having practically disappeared into the Everglades during the 19th century, the tribe's adaptation to the dense, bug-infested, sweltering swamp "was matched only by the crane or the alligator," according to historian Dale Van Every.

OK, so now you're thinking, what were the Seminoles doing in a dense, bug-infested, sweltering swamp? Doesn't sound like your idea of a good time?

The Seminole went down into the swamp during the three Seminole Wars fought against the United States. The warriors were able to make the most of their home-court advantage because they excelled at guerrilla tactics in the not-so-favorable conditions of the Everglades. The reason for these wars lay in the surrounding land itself. The white settlers were hungry for more space than they had already taken for their colonies, and wanted to expand south into what was then Spanish Florida. After the U.S. government "persuaded" Spain to give up the Florida territory in 1819, U.S. settlers started moving south in large numbers. Because the settlers did not think they could live alongside the "savage" Indians, they decided that the Seminoles and other area tribes should pick up their homes, belongings, and families and move to unsettled territories west of the Mississippi River. Rather than agree to this eviction from their homeland, the Seminoles decided to stay and fight.

Conditions in the Everglades were so difficult for the U.S. Army, and the Seminole were such clever warriors, that the U.S. was never able to fully accomplish its goal of Indian removal. While several thousand Seminole were killed or relocated to the West, at least 100 never surrendered. They continued to live in the swamplands after the U.S. gave up and the gunfire subsided.

Although the history books say that the second Semniole War just sort of "peetered out," tribal member and gator wrestler Mike Osceola tells us the story with a different spin. "Technically, we are still at war with the United States," he offers with a grin. "We have not signed a peace treaty; we have not been forced to move west off our lands. We remain...unconquered."

Now that they called the unforgiving Everglades their home, the Seminole needed to find food that wouldn't spoil in the intense Florida heat and humidity. To keep their food fresh, the Seminole would capture an alligator and keep it alive until it was time to cook and eat. The Seminole would then make use of the entire alligator, even using its bones for needles or knife handles, its teeth for decorative jewelry. Their agile ability and experience with hunting these notorious animals became a fascinating show for the white traders who observed the Seminole capturing the creatures in canals alongside early roads.

Then, after years of living in virtual isolation in the Everglades, industrialization made its way into their homes. Canals were dug through the swamplands, trees were clear-cut and waters drained to make the land farmable. With the entire ecology of the Everglades changed forever, the Seminole moved out of the swamp and on to five reservations where they have again adapted to their situation and continued to thrive.

Traditional Seminole shelters are called 'chickees'
Today's Seminole Indian existence is a mix of tribal tradition and acculturation with European-American ways of life. While they were once forced to adapt to life in the Everglades ecosystem, modern Seminoles are now adapting to the economic realities of living in the United States. For the 3,000 members of the Seminole Tribe in southern Florida, creating this balance means opening up aspects of their culture for the paying public to experience and learn about. On both the Big Cypress and Hollywood Reservations, recreations of traditional Seminole villages have been set up next to homes, schools, offices and churches where tribal members live, in neighborhoods just like yours. The Seminole remembered the interest others had in their gator wrestling abilities, and realized a moneymaking idea when they saw one. Live alligator wrestling shows have become standard fare for a visit to the Hollywood Reservation.

Little Tigertail carves a small alligator out of cypress wood
Their willingness to educate the public about their traditions is a gift to students and historians everywhere. At Big Cypress, Neda and I went to the amazing Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum (ah-tah-thi-ki means "to learn") and took a walk through the surrounding cypress swamp. We checked out the signs that helped us identify native plants and learn the incredible ways in which the Seminole used these plants for the food, medicine, building materials, dyes, and decoration they needed to survive. When we came to a clearing, we found several traditional Seminole shelters, called "chickees," set up to re-create a village with elements of their culture on living display. Under the thatched roofs we met elder tribe members Little Tigertail and Ingram Billie, Jr. who were demonstrating carving by creating alligators and knives out of cypress branches. They learned this craft decades ago as their brothers and uncles and fathers handed it down. Nearby, a woman sat with her sewing machine. She was creating samples of the beautiful, colorful patchwork patterns Seminole clothing has become famous for since they traded with settlers for the sewing machine in the 1900s. While they have certainly been created with the tourist in mind, these exhibits offer a fascinating view into what life was like for the Seminole through the years.

Samples of Seminole patchwork used to decorate clothing, blankets and bags
The Seminole history is truly an amazing one -- filled with inspirational courage and passionate pride. They have refused to submit to any foe, but have instead adapted their lifestyle in any way necessary to remain independent. Perhaps opening up gator wrestling positions to the public is just another way of ensuring the survival of their unconquered tribe. When you head down for your own go at the gators at the next tryouts, remember that with more handlers, more people will be able to see the shows and learn something about Seminole culture while they're on the Hollywood Reservation. So although the wrestlers won't be 100 percent Seminole from now on, at least the tradition and education will continue. The tribe called yat' siminoli, or "free people," has survived the worst that both man and nature have had to offer with their ever-evolving patchwork culture intact.


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - The mysterious ways of the secretive Pueblos
Irene - Take me to the river! Slippery salmons swimming upstream
Neda - A ghost town turns into a whirling dervish dance festival
Nick - Getting in touch with the Native American past through the heart of a woman
Teddy - Whale hunting and the art of preserving traditions
Team - The first inhabitants of North America: A picture of a proud and strong people
Team - Tomorrow's leaders, today's American Indian youth