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Discover Florida's Big Cypress Reservation

Discover Native Florida on the Big Cypress Reservation
By Candyce H. Stapen

On the Big Cypress Reservation within an hour of bustling Ft. Lauderdale wild life means bison, great blue herons, alligators and real Florida panthers. The reservation on the edge of the Everglades belongs to the Seminole tribe who has opened 2000-acres of their natural habitat to the public.

The best way to explore the area’s rivers of grass, mangrove forests and islands of hardwoods is by taking a Billie Swamp Safari tour. You wind through hardwood hammocks, pine forests, cypress domes and marshland on an open-sided swamp buggy. Its over-sized tires and elevated height enable it to make it through muddy marshland as well as on dirt paths.

The buggy ride gives you a sense of Florida before hotels and high-rises. Scores of alligators sleep on the creek banks, a razorback hog grunts through the grassland and a great blue heron feeds in the swamp. On the high prairie bison graze. In the dryer, wooded sections look for coyote, fox, armadillos and minx. The panthers, once prominent in these parts, lie in the shade of an enclosure.

En route the guide describes Seminole traditions and natural medicines
employed by natives for centuries. Find out about the aspirin-like substance the natives made from the leaves of willow trees, how the tribe members employed “dog fennel” as a natural mosquito repellant, and how the medicinal tea brewed from “shoe string” ferns was used to cure stomach aches.

Want more? Then book an overnight package. You bed down in a chickee, a traditional rustic dwelling with a thatched roof. Along with a day swamp buggy safari, you also ride through the reservation in the dark and then come back to listen to Seminole stories told around a campfire.

Discover more about the habitat, history and traditions of the Seminole at the reservation’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum—the name means “to learn.” The ancestors of the Seminole came from many tribes. When the Spanish and the British invaded the territory in the 17th century, many tribe members were killed or died of disease.

The Seminole tribe estimates that 200,000 Native Americans were living in Florida in 1500; by 1708, the number had dwindled to fewer than 20,000. The survivors roamed free, earning them the Spanish name “cimarrones,” (renegades), which in time became “shim-i-no-les.”

When the government passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, many people were forced to migrate west. The Seminole refused to go. So began the Seminole Wars of 1835-1842 and 1856-1858. Thousands more were killed or evicted. A relative handful (the Seminole put the number between 2 and 300) found refuge in the dense swamps and hammocks of the Everglades.

The museum collection includes moccasins, leggings, turtle-shell rattles and bows and arrows, dioramas, a 15-foot mounted ‘gator and a mounted black bear. At the reservation café, along with sandwiches and burgers, you can try tribal staples such as fry bread with honey, ‘gator nuggets and catfish.

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