ninth-grader Zoey Puente tills a line of edible aloe plants
at the school's Elaponke class garden in Billie Swamp Safari.
The garden provides an outdoor classroom environment for learning
Seminole culture and the language of the Tribe's ancestors.
(photo by Eileen Soler- Seminole Tribune Staff Reporter)
Jumper shows the juvenile roots system of a plant that most
people see as a weed but Seminoles know will eventually produce
a string of small bulbous edibles with taste and texture similar
to potatoes. (photo by Eileen Soler- Seminole Tribune Staff
high school students Ethan Balentine, Romeo Garcia and Leslie
Gopher take in the splendor of their Elaponke class garden
at Billie Swamp Safari on the Big Cypress Reservation in January.
(photo by Eileen Soler- Seminole Tribune Staff Reporter)
Big Cypress Students from Ahfachkee School culture classes
are digging so deep into their roots that they can almost taste
On a recent Wednesday afternoon inside the perimeter of a Seminole
camp at Billie Swamp Safari, ninth-grader Zoey Puente tilled lines
of edible aloe plants while classmates raked dirt around fledgling
vegetables in a garden about a dozen rows deep.
Within yards at the Big Cypress attraction's native camp that
also includes cooking, sleeping and work chickees, other teens planted
a seedling papaya tree.
In a few short months, the rows of now leafy green plants will
yield squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots and other vegetables;
the trees will bear tasty fruit; and the teens will be as profi
cient in their ancestral language as their forefathers were at growing
food in the swamp.
"This is Elaponke language class," Zoey said while wiping sweat
from her forehead. "And it makes me want to start my own garden
Also known as Seminole 1 and Seminole 2 in the Florida Department
of Education's Course Code Directory, Elaponke 1 and Elaponke 2
meet the state's two credit high school graduation language requirements.
And the garden at Billie Swamp, planted by students and tended
by them as needed, provides an outdoor classroom for learning Mikasuki
and Seminole culture at the same time.
"Here, we teach the kids about how our ancestors survived when
we had nothing and how the plants are used in other ways," said
the school's traditional preservation program director Jeannette
Cypress. "We don't want them to only know about food they can buy
at the store, but about food they can start from seeds and clippings."
All plants in the Billie Swamp garden started from seeds and
cuttings gathered from plants that already fl ourish at Ahfachkee
School garden about 2 miles away.
The campus garden was established by elders as an elective learning
opportunity for all grade levels and has been maintained by students
and gardening instructor Maxine Gilkes for the past decade.
The garden at Billie Swamp is different, said assistant program
director Danielle Jumper-Frye. High school student participation
is mandatory as part of Elaponke classes and as a community service
"At the Billie Swamp garden, kids get higher levels of hands-on
experience while learning all the words for everything that has
to do with growing plants, gardening and farming. They also get
a great break from the classroom," Jumper-Frye said.
Cypress and Jumper-Frye also use the class to introduce students
to interesting plants that most people outside the Tribe would never
For instance, the roots of three plants typically used in South
Florida home landscaping have been cooked and served as potatoes
by Seminoles for generations. One "potato" root, from the decorative
elephant ear plant, is especially tasty when roasted and topped
with molasses or bacon, Cypress said.
Gilkes said two decorative fl oral plants, both which grow pretty
red blossoms, are used by children to make swamp Kool-Aid: they
drop the pedals into glasses of cool water that turns red and sweet.
Wild hibiscus is a perfect example, Cypress said, but as a child
she went straight for the "candy" part; Cypress would pluck the
flower's stamen and pop it into her mouth for a quick nectar treat.
Jumper-Frye and Cypress often hike through remote areas of the
reservation in search of food plants that were part of Seminole
diets long ago. Some plants, such as wild cherry, bananas and strangler
plums, have been relocated to Billie Swamp in hopes of reintroducing
them into regular use.
Gilkes said today's teens are always amazed by what they learn
in the garden.
"What everyone else thinks is a root at the end of a weed is
food and medicine to someone else. The U.S. government threw this
land away because they thought it was useless. The Seminole thrive
on it to me, this is holy land," Gilkes said.
A favorite eye-opening activity is the school's unofficial annual
end-of-harvest student salsa-making contest. To garner interest,
students are allowed to dedicate sections of both gardens for salsa
fixings that include necessary herbs and spices.
"They can't believe sometimes how they can take tomato plants,
make salsa, then pluck the seeds from compost for the next season's
tomato crop. It's the cycle of life and the value of life that they
are learning because they grow salsa," Gilkes said.
The garden yield is served up in many recipes.
Some students earn bragging rights from harvest concoctions.
Last year high schooler Bradin Jim served up the hottest winning
salsa, but classmate Ethan Balentine remains a favorite garden chef
for his delicious papaya smoothies.
Franklin Jumper, who has been gardening at Ahfachkee for two
years, said the gardening part of Elaponke is plain fun.
"How can a kid not like to be outside playing? And it's always
nice to be able to get fresh food from your own backyard," Franklin