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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 17, 2003 - Issue 87


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Seminoles Stress Survival of Culture

by Elena Cabral Miami Herald

Active StudentsJust beyond Snake Road on the Big Cypress Reservation, far from the Seminole Tribe's flashy casinos, cultural lessons come with a quiet determination amid spelling drills and computer class.

In an age of PlayStation and rap music, Victor Billie shows a group of teenagers, some sporting tattoos and multicolored hair, how to carve wooden knives and spoons in the traditional way.

More than two decades after the Seminoles instituted gaming, the message of education has come to mean motivating youngsters who are guaranteed a $3,000-a-month gaming check.

The tribe has shifted its focus from stressing education for the sake of financial stability to education for the sake of self-determination. That and cultural preservation.

''I'm trying to teach them how to survive,'' Billie says, ``Not depend on the dividend.''

Lee Zepeda, 34, who became the Ahfachkee School principal last year, personifies that ideal. With his tuition paid by the tribe, he attended Stetson University as an undergraduate and went on to law school there. But after two years, Zepeda decided to be an educator instead.

''When I went to college it was always so I could come back,'' he said. ``I knew I wanted to work with the tribe, to work with others who wanted to take advantage of that opportunity.''


The opportunities for learning at Ahfachkee (the name means ''happy'') are considerable. Ample funding -- the school receives $1.7 million annually from Seminole gaming revenues with another $900,000 from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs -- allows for the 150 students to be organized in small, manageable classes.

'We don't worry about `does a teacher have the money to pay for pencils or paper,' '' Zepeda said while touring classrooms during the hush of a midmorning independent reading session, children sprawled on cushions and desks engrossed in books.

Zepeda has energized the school -- and the community -- said Candy Cypress, who recently became president of a parent-advisory committee at Ahfachkee.

''When you have a tribal member in the position of principal and it is running well, that sets a huge example,'' Cypress said.


In 2000, Ahfachkee was the only American Indian school to earn a Title 1 Distinguished School award from the Department of Education.

''Education is a big priority for the tribe,'' Zepeda said. ``And it shows.''

With proceeds from its $300 million gambling windfall, the tribe covers tuition, books and housing for any college-bound Seminole. Many are taking advantage of the opportunity.

In the 1970s, only one master's degree was conferred on a tribal member. In the 1990s, that number rose to seven.

The tribe also boasts one doctorate and two law degrees. At this moment, there are 75 Seminoles enrolled in various degree programs at colleges and universities.

Candy Cypress is one of them.

A 30-year-old single mother, Cypress quit her job last year at the tribe's health department, secured a mortgage on her mobile home and enrolled at Broward Community College, where she commutes to class three times a week. She wants to open her own business one day.


Jim Osceola is another. Osceola is studying food preparation at Johnson and Wales University in North Miami.

With the knowledge he is gaining, Osceola is transforming what used to be Jimbo's Bikini Grill, a food stand most notable for the bikini-clad woman who lured motorists off the road, into an upscale eatery.

Located on a dusty corner of U.S. 441 and Stirling Road, the restaurant is across the street from where the tribe is building its new casino resort.

For now, Osceola has a contract with the tribe to provide dinners to tribal seniors. And once a week, Osceola uses the space to teach Seminole children how to cook healthy meals, a calling that stems from being the parent of a teenager who lives with diabetes.

Despite the boom in college degrees, Seminole educators are concerned by signs that some students are losing interest in school at a young age.

According to an enrollment chart developed by the tribe's department of education, the tribe is covering the private school tuition for 31 kindergarten-age kids from the Hollywood reservation. It is underwriting the tuition of just three 12th-graders, a disparity that suggests a significant dropout rate that educators want to shrink.

''If I put $31 in the stock market and in 12 years you only have $3 you're not getting back on your investment,'' said Maria Rumbaitis, head of the Seminoles' education department.


Another investment that many are looking to augment is preserving the Seminoles' native language.

There are actually two: Creek and Miccosukee, although a third -- English -- is eclipsing both.

One pilot study by linguist Tom Sawallis of the Central Michigan University estimates that the last fluent speakers of Creek will die off by 2050.

The tribe has launched a Save our Language committee. A dictionary is in the works as educators look for ways to inject the language into the daily lives of Seminole children.

Putting a largely oral language to paper is a challenge unto itself, as is inventing words that apply to the world in which Seminole children are growing up.

At least in the Creek language, tribal members say, there are no words for ''computer'' or ``fax machine.''

''We don't have names for days of the week,'' said Diane Smith, a Seminole educator who in her mid-40s considers herself one of the last fluent Creek speakers. ``We're learning to write it and also to read it.''

For the Seminole people, preserving the traditional way of speaking means preserving an entire worldview that is embedded in each word and sound, said Susan Stans, an anthropologist at Florida Gulf Coast University who teaches a class in language instruction to Miccosukee and Creek speakers in a program supported by the tribe.

''We [non-Indians] are good at labeling things and separating things but in Creek everything is related,'' Stans said. ``The language, the beliefs, the ceremony, the religion all go together. A lot of people feel it's the essence of being Indian.''


Many say that being Indian today means being perpetually under scrutiny.

In one of Candy Cypress's college classes, a young student in a discussion about cultural differences volunteered to the class that Seminoles ``get $2,700 a month and don't pay taxes.''

Seminoles say they do pay taxes, but Cypress declined to rebut the woman, whose words touched a nerve rubbed raw by what Cypress says is a persistent resentment in the outside world of her people.

She remembered life on the Big Cypress Reservation before the advent of gaming, when the Seminoles were an impoverished clan. Tribal members would meet under an oak tree near the reservation's softball field for a government truck to deliver rations of canned meat and cheese -- ''commodities'' as they were called.

'When you live off the government, standing under an oak tree getting commodities you get `Indians on Welfare,' '' Cypress said. ``Now you're making your own money, you've got gaming and it's a huge revenue, and they still don't like it.

''I'm not quite sure what people want or expect from Seminoles,'' she said. ``To me it's like, go ahead and think it. I know what I do, I know where I'm from.''

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