chickee talk by Tina Marie Osceola

Oasis Visitor Center: Alligators Everywhere

As I drive across Tamiami Trail on any given day, at any given time of year, I feel like I am driving into a time travel machine. Mostly, my father is with me and his stories of growing up in Ochopee and Everglades City transport me back to a time when Tamiami Trail was just a limerock road with Seminoles and descendant African slaves working the endless rows of tomato and vegetable fields. Today when you look to the north or south of the Trail you see what appears to be pristine open sawgrass. In fact, those prairies in Ochopee were at one time, hugely successful agricultural fields that supplied the nation with fresh produce.

I do not know about the rest of you, but whenever I am in a car, I must have my 30 ounce iced black tea or large bottle of water to keep me going… sometimes both. My favorite place to stop along the way is the Oasis Visitor Center, located at about the halfway point between Naples and Miami. When my brother and I were young, we looked forward to that stop with such anticipation, that we would both scooch up from the backseat of our station wagon and wedge our heads between our parents, so that we could look through the trees and towards the horizon for the huge airplane. During our era, the Oasis was actually a gas station and convenience store with a huge airplane that sat on top of the building. Even though we stopped there often, every time seemed like the first, as we would stand outside staring up at what seemed like such a feat of human engineering. We would be so enthralled looking at the plane and it seemed more important than glass bottles of coke and crinkly bags of chips that waited for us inside the store.

Today, the location is called the Oasis Visitor Center and it is within the heart of the Big Cypress National Preserve (BCNP). It is still a popular pit stop for most travelers and if you time the water levels right, you will get to see more alligators in their natural environment than anywhere else in Florida. In 2021, in my role as the Director of the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office, I attended a meeting with the Superintendent of the BCNP, Thomas Forsyth. We struck up a collaborative friendship in an effort to maximize the opportunities for the Tribe and the Park Service under the co-stewardship initiative of the Biden Administration. Tribes across the nation are working with federal land management agencies on increasing their role in the stewardship and management of public lands that are all ancestral lands of America’s first peoples. The team at BCNP and the Seminole Tribe of Florida met on a regular basis and we developed a plan to co-manage the Oasis. Our nationally accredited Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s Exhibit Team went to work to enhance their interpretive story with an amazing exhibit, “Alligator Wrestling: Danger. Entertainment. Tradition.” Over a million visitors to the Big Cypress National Preserve can now stop for a convenience break, gaze at the wildlife, including gators on the boardwalk, and enjoy the air condition inside the visitor center and learn about the Seminole tradition of alligator wrestling.

I am very proud of our museum team, as well as the dedicated team at the BCNP under Tom Forsyth’s leadership. Please take a day trip, make a stop at the center which isn’t far from Clyde Butcher’s Gallery, and the Skunkape Headquarters. The Miccosukee Village and Museum with airboat tours isn’t far down the road either and you can really immerse yourself in what seems like a trip back in time for me.

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