It seems as if I have spent my entire speaking life talking to people, unfamiliar with Seminoles or “American Indians,” about my experiences, knowledge and opinions. I can remember as far back as being around four or five years old. I was at my grandparent’s village in East Naples, a local tourist attraction to some, but home to my dad’s family.
My grandfather had an alligator pit made out of concrete cinder blocks with sheets of plywood used as doors to get in and out. Tourists would pay to go inside the village and watch my grandfather feed the gators chicken or poke them with a long cypress pole. My cousins, brother and I always gathered around to watch alongside the tourists. They would ask us pretty much the same questions; “Do you ever get to go inside there with the Chief?” “Are those alligators your pets?” “I bet you can’t wait to get old enough to wrestle one of those?”
Kids at school had varying levels of interest in their Seminole classmate. However, they all thought I was lying or extremely weird when we were asked about our family pets and I would respond with “alligators” as an answer. The tourists thought it was cool and so I was more or less conditioned to answer for a response
rather than whatever purpose the teacher was asking. If I was accused of lying, I had proof laying in a concrete pit not but a few miles east of my classroom.
I realize, now, looking back, my day to day experiences were not all that common in comparison to my classmates and I knew things about alligators they probably did not. My family has a long history of survival and success because of the Florida tourism industry. So, I grew up around alligators and alligator wrestling
As a little girl who traveled the festival circuit, I remember going to an event held in downtown Miami at the Key Biscayne Convention Center. Our former Chairman, James Billie, was the alligator wrestler. Of course this was long before his career in politics, and my grandfather, Cory Osceola, was still alive, so it had to be prior to 1978. My Grandpa told us kids to stay in the booth because James Billie was going to be wrestling a 10-foot
bull alligator. He said there was a good chance this wrestler could get hurt and he didn’t want us over there. I distinctly remember, both my Grandpa and Dad making a beeline for the bleachers to watch this fete. I waited for them to get out of sight, and I snuck out of the booth and watched as James dragged a monster of an alligator into the arena.
This was one of the biggest alligators I remember ever seeing! I watched, without breathing, as James wrestled this alligator with ease. I remember thinking that this man is like a superhero or something! When my grandpa and dad returned to the booth (I beat them back) they shrugged it off as if it was no big deal, but to this day, I have yet to see anyone wrestle a gator that big without struggling.
Although I still enjoy watching the sport and still gasp when I think one of their tricks is getting a little risky or going a little too far, I miss seeing the gator wrestlers from when I was young. Bobby Tiger, who began wrestling at the Musa Isle Indian Village in Miami in the 1940’s, was the featured wrestler at the Miccosukee Village in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and he added humor to his shows. I remember him passing a coffee can around the alligator pit for tips, “This is how I make a living folks, so I don’t want to hear anything rattling when you throw it in there!” Meaning he wanted cash… paper money! After all, everyone had a concrete barrier and chain link separating them from the pit teaming with at least two dozen gators.
Richard Bowers, wrestled at the Okalee Indian Village in Dania, the site of Seminole’s Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. Richard would dive into a tank of water and wrestle the gator underwater. I still get chills thinking about what it was like diving into those dark canals and wrestling with a gator.
I could go on and on about my memories of alligator wrestling, however, an important point not to be missed is alligator wrestling for Seminoles is a direct link to our indigenous bloodlines and our environment. I have seen drawings from the 1500’s that depict native people in Florida battling large reptiles. Both the Seminole Tribe’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and the Miccosukee Tribe’s Village and Museum, tell the stories of the alligator and its significance to our people.
Those who wish to get into the sport of wrestling gators today, ask permission from someone of the Snake
Clan to begin their training. So although it was a dangerous and exciting way to support your family, it was also something that our culture built traditions and beliefs around.
Oh, and to answer those questions the tourists asked all those decades ago, NO, we were never allowed to go inside a gator pit with our Grandpa; the alligators were never our pets; and yes, I could wait and never really
wanted to wrestle an alligator myself.