Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Museum marks 20th anniversary and eclipse

It was a weekend of celebrations at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Museum, and Monday, Aug. 21, was a “huge, huge day for the Seminole Tribe of Florida,” according to Museum Director Dr. Paul Backhouse.

The Seminole Tribe honored those who helped establish its pride and joy 20 years ago with a special, invitation-only banquet on Saturday night attended by over 300 people, at which the tribe also marked the passage of 60 years since it won federal recognition as a sovereign Native American tribe.

The coincidence of a near-total solar eclipse in South Florida on Monday, the actual anniversary date, made it even more special annd prompted the tribe to plan a free-admission public house at the museum plus a remembrance ceremony of Native American legend surrounding the celestial rarity.

This year is also significant for the tribe since it is the two-century anniversary of the beginning of the First Seminole War. The Seminole Tribe is the only American Indian tribe never to have signed a peace treaty with the United States government.

“You know, to be recognized as a sovereign government is a huge, huge deal for the path that the Seminole Tribe took to get to where they are today,” Dr. Backhouse said. “The events of 1957 were massively significant.”

He explained that Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki (which means “a place to learn, a place to remember” in the Seminole tongue) was established in 1997 to enable the tribe to tell its own story.

Many of the people who came out Monday, though, were there to watch the eclipse, enjoy freebies and witness a reenactment of one Native legend surrounding an eclipse of the sun.

“The museum is free today because it is the 20th anniversary, so a couple of months ago, we thought it would be fun to, because the dates align, serve sun tea and moon pies, and it kind of grew from there,” said Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Retail Manager Rebecca Petrie. “So we have Jake Osceola here, who’s going to be shooting at the moon to bring the sun back with a flaming arrow. That’s why the tip of his arrow is lit up. We’re having fun.”

Mr. Osceola explained: “The idea is not so much a re-creation but to kind of give a nod to some of the old legends. The tribe itself has a diverse background. Most of the eastern nations that make up the natives from the major part of our group are families, have a combination between Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole and are all pretty much from the same base family, so the the legends are very similar. They vary depending on region a little bit.”

He said he reached out to senior tribal members, who filled him in. “They said there was a great toad in the sky, a spirit, that would eat the sun.” Some of the tribes turned away, believing that if they left it alone, the toad would regurgitate the sun. Others took to screaming at the sky to try to scare it away. But Mr. Osceola fixed on the story of a section of the Choctaw and Seminole tribes who would shoot arrows at the sky to kill the toad. “And that’s the part I like because I’m an archer.”

So at an impromptu meeting weeks ago, Dr. Backhouse and he were talking about it, “and he asked me if I would be interested in doing something like that. Jokingly, I said yes. He goes, ‘Hey, let’s do flaming arrows, too!’ And I was like, ‘Uhhh, no, I don’t think that’d be a good idea, but it’d be fun.’”

So he set about trying to rig a safe flaming arrow and hit upon the idea of using a lighted fishing lure as an arrowhead in place of an actual burning one. “The hope was it’d be dark enough that when I launch it you’d see it streak through the sky and look like a flaming arrow, without having the consequences of flames that may have to be put out, with all the dry chickee hut tops around. It’s interesting how legends are very similar but regionally different,” said Mr. Osceola.

The crowd of over 100 visitors enjoyed his storytelling and then watched his exercise, and no one seemed to notice or care that they sky never got very dark at all.

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com

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