Photo Exhibit Offers Stunning View of Seminole History

Photo Exhibit Offers Stunning View of Seminole History

Michelle Tirado

A collection of black and white photographs on display at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Indian Museum on the Big Cypress reservation in South Florida provides a stunning glimpse into an obscure chapter in Seminole history.

The collection is being spotlighted in an exhibit called Camera-man, which opened late last fall and runs through January 2014. The photographs were taken by photographer Julian Dimock in 1910 while he accompanied anthropologist Alanson Skinner on an expedition to Big Cypress Swamp. Dimock spent two and a half weeks exploring the swamp and visiting Seminole camps, capturing some 100 images of the landscape and the people who subsisted there. The museum is showcasing 25 of them in this exhibit.

In the first decade of the 20th century, it was rare for a white American to venture into the Big Cypress Swamp and come back and talk about it. A vast expanse of swampland, it was home to all sorts of unfriendly wildlife, like alligators and panthers, and a couple hundred unwelcoming Seminoles. Skinner and Dimock were among the few that made round-trip excursions into the area. In fact, Dimock, along with his father, A. W. Dimock, traveled there on several occasions between 1900 and 1910, taking hundreds of pictures and writing magazine articles about their adventures.

Dr. Paul Backhouse Ph.D., director of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and the Seminole’s tribal historic preservation officer, said the period from the Third Seminole War (1855-1858) through the first decades of the 20th century was one of isolation for the tribe. “The attention of non-Seminoles was diverted elsewhere, and the remaining Seminoles rarely strayed from the isolation of their remote camps in the interior of the Everglades,” he said. “The expeditions by the Dimocks are, therefore, remarkable in that they were encountering and photographing people and camps that had deliberately retreated from the public eye for a long time.”

During the 1910 expedition, the anthropologist and cameraman had the help of Frank Brown, who owned a trading post called Browns Boat Landing, which was located on what is today the Big Cypress Reservation, and Wilson Cypress, a Seminole. According to John Moga, the museum’s curator of exhibits, it was Cypress who negotiated their admittance into the camps that they visited. “At a couple of the camps, they were turned back at gunpoint. They were not allowed there. So, it really depended on who they knew and who they trusted and did not trust,” he said.

And the Seminoles in Big Cypress were not in a very trusting mode, added Willie Johns, Seminole, outreach specialist for the museum. “This is pre-reservation. They always thought that the war might still be on. So, they needed to keep their guard up.”

In 1920, the photographs, preserved on glass negatives, were donated to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which had funded the expedition. Moga said they were catalogued and then forgotten about.

“The Seminole tribe is very wealthy in having these kinds of pictures around,” said Johns.

There is, of course, their historical value: They show where the Seminoles lived, how they navigated the watery environment, what they wore and what youth did for fun. They also document the impacts of population growth on Big Cypress Swamp.

Backhouse pointed out, “One of the pictures is of this door to the trading post. They rode the canoe up to the door to sell their goods. We know where that door location is today. It’s in the middle of a pasture. The change in environment that the tribe dealt with and managed over this time is dramatic.”

Johns thinks the photographs bring some closure to the descendents of those photographed, like the family of Milton Cypress, who in one photo stands in a canoe near Boat Landing. “They never knew what Milton looked like,” he said.

In addition to the photographs, the Camera-man exhibit features objects, such as long shirts and belts, collected by Dimock and Skinner during the expedition. Many of these items were worn or used by the Seminoles posing in the pictures. Plans are in the works to turn this into a traveling exhibit as soon as next year, with a stop at the American Museum of Natural History, which still has ownership of the photos and artifacts.

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