Interviewee: David Blackard
Interviewer: Rosalyn Howard
H. I am talking this afternoon at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum with David Blackard,
who is director of the museum and this is April 21, 1999. David, can you tell me
about how the museum got started?
B. Well, I was not actively involved when it got started, so it might be best to ask
Billy Cypress about it; however, before Billy Cypress was made the executive
director there was a young lady whom the Chairman had hired, and I did speak
with her in the early days. So, I know what she told me. She had worked with
the Chairman on some projects in Tampa, which is where she was from. I guess
the Chairman was happy with what she had done over there, [which was]
something to do with what is currently the Sheraton hotel on the Tampa
H. What is her name?
B. Shannon Garcia. I guess the chairman had always been interested in having a
museum-always is probably the wrong word to use. A number of years ago he
was involved in the American Indian Days festival in Naples. My wife, Patsy
West, and I were over there, she was there with her photographs. The last
evening of that event, which would have been a Sunday, I really do not recall
how many years ago it was, it has been a while now, the chairman said, can you
guys swing back through Big Cypress on our way home from Naples, back to our
home in Fort Lauderdale, and see what he had in mind here. At that time, on this
property, he was developing some concept for a museum. We told him that we
would swing back by here, and as it turned out we had at least one young baby
or both of our sons in tow and it got later and later and we did not come by here.
Anyway he was working on it on his own and eventually gave the project over to
this lady Shannon Garcia to get going. I think she was involved with getting the
architect for the master plan. I am not sure how much to continue to ramble on
here. You are going to be interviewing Billy Cypress and he has some other
perspectives on it.
H. About how many people visit the Okalee Museum? Are you involved with that
B. Here we administer that museum, so we are responsible for its exhibits, and
some of the people that are on the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki staff have offices in that
building. The building itself is not owned by the Seminole Tribal Council but
rather by the Seminole Board, Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc.. Since it has only
been open since August 22 or 23 of 1998, I'm really not sure what the
attendance is like there.
H. What about here?
B. I would have to look it up, but I think from March to March or February to
February it was about 18,000 people.
H. Do many Seminole people visit the museum?
B. Not on a regular basis. I got a call the other day, I guess it was Monday morning,
somebody was calling from Brighton and said they were going to have friends
down and wanted to know when we were open. I don't remember when it was,
maybe they were seeing about weekend hours. It does happen and I think it will
happen more as time goes on.
H. Are students from the Ofkochee school brought here to the museum?
B. Not on a regular basis. It is just one of the many things we intend, to get a
workign relationship with them, but there are so many other thing to do.
H. So it is mainly children from other schools that come to visit, or is it tourists who
are coming through?
B. No, there are all sorts of people. We would have to look at the guest book, but
just within a few months of opening we had people from Australia, New Zealand,
all over Europe, places in Central and South America, as well as all over the
United States. Of course, as far as groups coming here, we get a number of tour
buses which have, in particular, German visitors. At this point in time it is
important to remember we have only been open for about eighteen or nineteen
months. Mostly we have schools that come in buses, but there are a lot of
individuals that come out here.
H. How do you design learning activities for the students who come, or do they just
do the same tour as the other people?
B. You know, we are out here a long way from the populated coasts and so just
coming and returning to the school, if we are talking about a school group, eats
up a lot of their time. They are left with an hour or two here. Our introductory
film, which explains in broad-brush terms the history of the Seminoles, is
eighteen minutes long. That is nearly a half an hour shot, so essentially our
Seminole tour guides take them through the gallery and then on out through the
cypress dome on the boardwalk to the village in the back where the crafts people
H. Who do you consider your principal audience to be, Seminole or non-indian
B. Everyone is our principal audience. Of course, there are definitely two distinct
categories, and you mentioned them both. Right now we are actively engaged in
an oral history program of our own, so we are busy gathering up the
reminiscences, memories, and ideas of tribal members.
H. Can you tell me a little bit more about that project?
B. Well, I handled the first part of it, which was to try to give an accurate view in the
gallery, in the Seminole people's own words, about their economic, social
activities, and religion. When I did it I just tried to cover every little minute piece
of information that we possibly could. It happens in sort of a haphazard manner.
I mean, when I was working on the design and being involved in some of the
other things in the years before we opened, if I would think of a question or series
of questions, I would write them down. So I have this huge stack of papers that
are just on a variety of topics, and it is just kind of whatever came to mind. Right
now it would be better to ask Ruby Hamilton, our archivist, what she is pursuing
in the way of oral history. I know that they have got set questions, and I know
they let interviewees talk about whatever they want. If there is something they
want to discuss then they are allowed to do that.
H. What do you consider are some of the challenges of presenting Seminole culture
to both Seminoles and non-indian peoples?
B. I suppose if we are talking about challenges, there are two things. There are
certain bits of information that might be considered the property of Seminoles
and not for general dissemination, and so we need to be careful about that.
When we get on those kinds of topics we try to go to the people that we know
have the most information and just rely on them to tell us what we can further
dispense to the public. I may be wandering off the path here, but a museum is
sort of a foreign concept to ... I mean it is not something that American Indian
tribes invented or have been living with for a long period of time. They have their
own ways, traditional ways of conveying information down from young people to
old people, and many of those systems are still in operation. When you think
about American Indian tribes, our stereotyped view of them may be that their
learning systems are primarily informal, that you just live in the village and pick
up the skills and knowledge that you need. But in fact the Semioles do have
periods of time when people with knowledge get together with people who want
knowledge, and it is conveyed, not at a desk, necessarily, but it is sort of lecture,
in a sense. So there is a formal process that they go through. I think I have
skipped half of the question or kind of gotten off on a tangent.
H. Well actually I think you were ...
B. Challenges, we were talking about. Well, I do not know about the challenges. To
outsiders we just try to present the Seminole opinions of things that happened.
One thing that people probably do not think about from an economic standpoint
is that the Seminoles ate a lot of turtles, traditionally. People just think about
bigger things, deer and other things, but the Seminoles are big turtle eaters. So
we have some information about that in the Seminoles' own words. So if people
come here expecting northwest coast totem poles and birch-bark canoes,
whereas the Seminoles have cypress canoes, or teepees and the Seminoles are
living in their chickees, at this point in time the museum does not argue those
points. We just present the Seminole point of view. I can say that a crowd came
here from somewhere in the British Isles--when I say a crowd, I just mean a
family--and they were pretty disappointed that we did not have any teepees.
They just shook their heads, no, back and forth, no, when I said the Seminoles
do not have teepees and that is why there are not any. You could just see the
disappointment on their faces.
H. That also shows how many people think that indian culture is monolithic.
H. This museum is a good means to disillusion people of that.
B. Well, we hope so.
H. In your opinion, how does the museum succeed in preserving Seminole culture?
B. I think at this point in time, one of our main ways of preserving it is that we are
actively collecting artifacts, which of course is the heart of museums everywhere,
traditionally has been. The other thing is the oral history program, which we
already mentioned, that we are going to be busy collecting those histories and
they will be available for the tribe in the future.
H. Regarding the collection of artifacts, do you have any archaeological projects
B. Not at this point.
H. Are you working with any particular university when you do?
B. It is not a question of when we do. There have been a number of archaeological
projects done on reservations in recent years that came about from other
departments. They did not come from the museum department. They had to do
with land management and stuff. The results of the surface collecting are in our
vault. Any archaeological remains that the tribe has paid for, we have. None of
that is funerary, just because that is not something the Seminole people are
comfortable with, just coming to a museum and having those sort of objects. Of
course, there is the museum in Tampa, which is a special situation. It is a
reburial situation, so there are both human remains there and the artifacts
associated with those remains. But here in Big Cypress, where there is a bigger
Seminole community and we are close to the other reservations, this is a safe
place, with none of that.
H. Besides funerary objects, do they have any objection to disturbing the land as
you would have to do in excavation projects?
B. I really have not discussed that at length with any body. It has not been a major
concern of mine. I know that there are varying opinions. I know that our
executive director Billy Cypress understands all view points. He is in constant
contact with other Native American tribes, tribal leaders, and people interested
with culture preservation. He just knows and understands the full gamut. There
is a man who is getting a lot of press, or relatively a lot of press in recent years,
Bobby Billy. I don't believe he is actually on the tribal role, but he is definitely a
Seminole. He has had a lot of traditional learning dealing with medicine and
beliefs. He is pretty much opposed to people poking around like that.
H. I think that it was the first question I asked you, when we were talking about the
Okalee and the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki museums, you said that there is a difference
between the tribe incorporated and the tribe. Can you explain that for me?
B. It is what is referred to more casually as the council and board, the board being
the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc. I am probably not the one to explain this.
H. Well, give me your understanding of it. That would help.
B. The council is the governing body and the board is a business arm. But as it
turns out, the council is the group that runs the biggest revenue producing things,
H. You mentioned that in back of the museum here there is a village where people
do traditional crafts. Is that something that goes on everyday or just special
B. Pretty much. I mean we can have a day here when everything goes wrong, in
the sense that somebody needs to go to the doctor and has an appointment,
someone else is not feeling well. There is also a situation where some people
are not comfortable being back there in the woods by themselves. But yes,
everyday we are open we try to have people back there. Some days we have
four or five people and other times one, two, or three.
H. Are the things that are sold in your gift shop items that are made by those crafts
B. Often times they are, yes. It is not exclusively things that are made back there,
but a good many of them are.
H. Is the museum part of the eco-tourism package that the Seminoles have put
B. My job as museum director is to make sure the place is open and clean, the
humidity is in the right range, and that we have people show up here at times,
and so forth. It is part of the big package in the sense that when somebody
comes out here this is one of the places they can go and visit, and hopefully have
an enjoyable and informative time. But the museum was not made, constructed,
as a money maker. All museums tend to not make money.
H. When James Billie first had the idea for this museum, can you tell me what his
motivations were? Why did he want a museum?
B. You will have to ask him. Although I have known the chairman since about 1974,
we have not had any discussions on it. I think that he is well enough pleased
that Billy Cypress has hired me. My feeling is that he feels like the museum
needs to be here for the tribe. In a changing world it will help keep the tradition
and history alive, or at least accessible to interested parties.
H. Were you involved with museums before this?
B. I have been interested in the Seminoles in particular, and the Plains Indians as
well, ever since I was a little kid. As soon as I could drive I began to go to
museums and look at both what was on exhibit and then go in their storage
collections and study their Seminole artifacts, in some cases Plains Indian
material. Just by association, I became interested in museums and what they
did. I also have a background in fine art and design, so I have been interested in
that sort of thing. Eventually people realized, in particular, the Fort Lauderdale
Historical Society, felt like I had knowledge to put together an exhibit for them on
Seminole arts, which I did and was fairly successful. Then they hired me to do a
number of other projects for them, which are unrelated to Native Americans. It
sort of grew out from there.
H. Where did you grow up?
B. Pompano Beach, Florida.
H. You were in the area where a lot of indians were?
B. We were not that far from the Hollywood reservation.
H. Well that is about all I have to ask you about. Is there anything you would like to
add that I have not asked you about?
B. No. You can come back if you think of something.