chickee talk by Tina Marie Osceola

Traditional Transportation: Dugout Canoes

Tina Osceola

I grew up hearing, “April showers bring May flowers.” So, as I drove across Alligator Alley one morning in April, I didn’t think a whole lot about the rain being dumped on my black Honda minivan. However, living in Florida my whole life, rain is common and not something we think about at first. I hadn’t listened to the news for a few days and so I didn’t know what the weather forecast had in store for me. In fact, I wore an ankle length dress that day and was kicking myself that I didn’t check the weather and opt for pants. I spent my morning at my office on the Big Cypress reservation and had to get back on the Alley for a 3:00 p.m. meeting at our headquarters in Hollywood. It was that drive that seemed a bit overkill. I couldn’t drive faster than 55-60 mph because the rain was pouring down on top of me like a broken fire hydrant. As I approached what we call the “spaghetti bowl,” where I-75, Sawgrass Expressway, and I-595 meet up, the water was pouring off the overpasses like an overflowing sink. Our headquarters are located near the Turnpike and Stirling Road in Hollywood. That area is kind of like a basin and the streets are very low and retain water in a mild rainstorm, let alone, whatever this was. The roadways were already holding water and I knew that we were in for some flooding, but little did I know that the water I was holding my breath driving through would become even higher and by 6:00 p.m. the airport and downtown areas would begin to flood, closing runways, Port Everglades, and the entire downtown.

The drive home wasn’t any better than before, however, the further I drove west, the rain began to slow to a drizzle. It was that ride across Alligator Alley, looking over the sawgrass prairies and at the tree islands that my mind wandered back in time. My grandfather was born in 1893 on an island where Treetops Park now sits in west Broward County. The Everglades’ water environment surrounded his village, and the only mode of transportation was the dugout canoe, made from a cypress tree. Some of Julian Dimock’s photographs at the turn of the 20th Century captured incredible images of the canoes from that period (see photos). Just like cars of today, or boats, the canoes were built in different sizes, shapes, and styles given the circumstances.

Seminoles and our ancestors had long established trade routes throughout the state of Florida using rivers, swamp, and marshes, to navigate and travel inside of the state, the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Images flashed through my mind as I made my way in my warm, dry minivan and although I felt lucky for my current circumstances, I couldn’t help but feel removed or even spoiled that my relatives and ancestors were exposed to the elements and would have either taken a rest at a tree island or just kept on poling through the water.

When I was growing up, I watched my one-armed Grandpa, Cory Osceola, my dad and brother (the two O.B.s) go search for cypress logs and demonstrate canoe making for the public at festivals and museum events. They used axes to shape the canoe’s stern and bow and a hand adze to hull out the flesh of the tree. This was no easy task. Today, my cousin, Pedro Zepeda, who lives in Naples is a master of traditional arts and has preserved the art of canoe making. There are several others in both the Miccosukee and Seminole Tribes, as well as the Independent Seminole community, who have kept this tradition going.

If you get a chance over this long summer, or if the weather forecaster predicts a rainy day, I urge you to visit either the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum or the Miccosukee Village and Museum, to get a close look at the canoes of our people today and our ancestors. There is something refreshing about being in the rain as it returns to the earth.

Remember, Florida has two seasons, wet and dry. The wet season is upon us.

Photos Courtesy of: American Museum of Natural History

O.B. Osceola, Sr. & Jr., building canoes at Florida Folk Festival 1977-78

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