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History Beyond Fort Lauderdale’s Beach: The Region’s Seminole Heritage Revealed

Learn the fascinating history and traditions of the Seminole Tribe at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Indian Museum. (Photo: Courtesy of Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Indian Museum)

There’s so much more to Fort Lauderdale than palm trees and beaches. Dig a little deeper to discover the greater Fort Lauderdale area is also home to the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the only American Indian tribe never to sign a peace treaty with the U.S.

Today, the Seminoles are one of the most prosperous tribes in the nation; from fry bread to gator wrestling, their culture and traditions are woven throughout South Florida and are easily accessible to visitors.

Early Seminole History

For about 12,000 years the ancestors of the indigenous people who would later be called Seminoles lived in the territory now named Florida. The Spanish colonialists who arrived in the 1500s called them cimarrones or “wild, free people,” because they refused to be controlled by the Europeans.

The tribe’s own name in the Masko’ki language, simanolis, or “those that camp at a distance,” evolved with cimarrones into “Seminole” in the English language.

For centuries, the Spanish, English and finally, Americans attempted to push the Seminoles — who by the 1800s also included free and formerly enslaved Africans — off the land. After a series of brutal Seminole Wars, the remaining tribe members hid in the swamps and Everglades of South Florida until well into the 20th century.

Living in isolation, they preserved their culture and expanded the Seminole presence when 80,000 acres of land was formally set aside for the tribe in 1938.

Seminole
Thousands of Seminole artifacts are on exhibit at the museum. (Photo: Courtesy Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Indian Museum)

Explore Seminole Culture

Explore Seminole history by visiting the interactive displays at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Indian Museum, north of Fort Lauderdale in Clewiston, Florida. You’ll be greeted with a friendly explanation of the Seminole experience by a tribe member and will then view a brief video that supplies an overview of the tribe’s history in Florida.

From there, check out displays of Seminole hallmarks like cypress canoes, beadwork and the Green Corn Dance.

Don’t miss the thousands of artifacts on exhibit, along with digital content or the recordings of traditional Seminole songs. Head outside to walk the mile-long boardwalk, which displays traditional plants, a clan pavilion and a living village that highlights traditional Seminole life a hundred years ago.

A Different Kind of Industry

Seminole
Rodeo culture is a way of life for many members of the Seminole Tribe. (Photo: Florida Seminole Tourism)

Seminoles bartered or traded cattle as far back as the 1600s, and many consider cattle-raising to be the first Seminole industry. Head west from Fort Lauderdale to check out Junior Cypress Rodeo Arena and discover the excitement of traditional rodeos and cattle drives.

Every March this sprawling complex hosts the annual Junior Cypress Arena Cattle Drive and Rodeo. Visitors can join the herd and ride along on a horse or a swamp buggy or just grab a chair and watch the action. A tribal elder is honored as Trail Boss each year, and the all-day event includes breakfast, cattle drive, rodeo and BBQ dinner.

The Call of the Wild

West of downtown Fort Lauderdale, seek adventure in the wetlands and wild landscape of the Florida Everglades with Billie Swamp Safari. Located on 2,200 untamed acres of the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, the Swamp Safari serves up a scenic glimpse of the Seminole natural world.

The swamp-buggy eco tours, which roll through the swamp for close-ups of water buffalo, ostriches and wild pigs, and the air boat rides, which splash through cypress domes and hover eerily close to alligators, are standouts.

There are also animal exhibits, a snake show and the Swamp Water Cafe for helpings of bison burgers, gator tails, frog legs and fry bread.

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