Forty-five minutes south of Clewiston exists a nation in the heart of South Florida.
It is the Big Cypress Reservation, the largest of six reservations owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Far off the beaten path, Big Cypress is a remote 82-square mile tract of land where friends greet one another in the traditional Miccosukee language and women cook "fry bread" and prepare gar and deer over an open flame.
It is a land well worth visiting to learn about its people and its history, because among the 566 Native American tribes recognized by the United States government, the Seminoles claim a unique distinction: Unconquered.
They never surrendered, never signed a peace treaty. By retreating into the Everglades, the Seminoles outsmarted and outlasted a nation whose aim was to forcibly relocate them to Oklahoma.
Among Florida's tourist destinations, Big Cypress is unlike any other. To begin to understand the Seminoles, a smart first stop is the Smithsonian-affiliated Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum where the story of the justifiably proud tribe begins with the moving film, 'We Seminoles' and includes realistic displays of how they hunted (and were hunted), and how tribe members prepared meals and clothing, how they traveled, traded, worshipped, and celebrated.
To add understanding, a boardwalk eases through a cypress swamp, an art gallery displays priceless crafts, Seminole elders host a reconstructed village, and a research center preserves artifacts both wonderful and woeful; such as the 19th Century manifest of tribe members being shipped to Oklahoma.
Two miles down the road, Billie Swamp Safari, a remote and strangely beautiful place, is the reservation's main tourist attraction. Step through a small gift shop and you enter the land of the Seminoles. Here, speeding airboats and towering swamp buggies drive back in time to a seemingly primeval landscape. On each tour knowledgeable guides make sense of this relatively undisturbed world, explaining in detail a universe of ferns and flowers, egrets and herons, alligators and deer.
After the tour, stick around and watch a brave Seminole wrestle an alligator or drop in for lunch at the appetizing Swamp Water Café (if you're feeling lucky, there's a small casino attached). Should you decide to stay over, you can experience a night of "adventure sleeping" inside a traditional chickee hut. Not for the faint of heart, the huts lack electricity, plumbing, and air conditioning – but waking to the sounds and sights of alligators, water buffalo, deer, and sand hill cranes in an unusually natural landscape is truly an unforgettable experience.
Should you prefer a step up in comfort, a few miles away lodging is also available at the Big Cypress RV Resort (800/437-4102 and 863/983-1330) which features cabins, tent sites, and full hook-ups.
For a lifetime, I had admired the pride of the Seminoles -- but, like most travelers, only at a distance. Now I had come to their land where the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum artfully explained their distant past while the Billie Swamp Safari reflected the tribe's more recent history. Across Big Cypress, it's very clear that the estimated 3,800 tribal members are firmly committed to preserving the culture and heritage of their past. But with the opening of Seminole-owned Hard Rock hotels in 2004 and the well-publicized purchase of Hard Rock International in 2007, today the tribe faces the unique challenge of navigating a new era of prosperity and opportunity.
Having been welcomed like a long-lost friend, several members of Seminole tribe were gracious enough to share their thoughts on their pride, identity, and the preservation of their culture…
Frank Billie, 48
I'm proud to be a Seminole because we are very strong-spirited. We still stay in touch with our traditions. That's it. That's what makes me proud to be an Indian. Most people have to go to computers to look up their family tree, but our families tell us where we come from and how long ago. When you sit down with an elder he gives you that spiritual conditioning that you couldn't get anywhere else.
Councilman Mondo Tiger, 53
What makes me very, very proud to be a Seminole are my ancestors. The hardships they had gone through, the teachings they shared and, most of all, discipline. It's the elders who did that. They had a lot of "walk around" sense. A lot of us don't have that walk around sense. We do have an education, but education can only take you so far if you're not wise. So in my opinion these ancestors had everything. Those are the real unconquered people. The real Seminoles.
Noella O'Donnell, 42
Today the tribe has come so far. People assume the tribe has this wealth of funding that we can just throw it out here and there, but that's not the case. We're self-sufficient; we can take care of the tribal members and being able to help with education is huge. The financial aspect has equalized things and today it's amazing how attitudes have changed -- what success can do in the perception of others.
Moses Jumper, 63
There's nothing I'd rather be than associated with Native Americans across the nation. We are diverse cultures yet our traditions make us who we are. But the Seminoles are unique in that we are unconquered. We are not under treaties and obligations that most native tribes have been under.
Today we have more money, which offers a lot of ways to preserve our heritage. We grew up seeing it everyday being around elders, but today we can afford to put schools on our reservation and teach our language and traditions and that helps out a lot. And maybe someday we'll have a college. There are 26 different Native colleges in the U.S. and when you have a college you can teach your heritage and culture and things you need to teach them.
So those are the things that make me glad.
This story originally appeared at Visit Florida.