Seminole Cultural Exchange crosses North America

By Sandra Hale Schulman
 - News From Indian Country -

When the Seminoles of Florida decided to do a true cultural exchange, they wanted to go to a place geographically as far away as possible. So Brian M. Zepeda, Naples Tribal Council Liaison, who was born and raised in Naples and has been officially with the tribe since 1997, looked west and north. Zepeda emcees many Seminole events, and has even been in movies as he is good with crowds and in front of a camera.

“My movie appearance have not been planned, I have no agent, but the tribe gets calls and they ask me,” he says modestly. “This idea started 9 months ago to travel somewhere far away in the US to do a cultural exchange. We just did one in North Carolina with the Eastern Band of Cherokee and that was just with one tribe. We reached out to some cultural councils in the North West and Alaska and told them we wanted to do a true exchange, not just show up and do a performance for them. We got back that 80 natives were interested and several tribes as no one had ever asked them before.”

“After some consideration we settled on going to the Quinhault Indian Nation and stayed at the Quinhault Beach Resort in Ocean Shores, Washington to do the performance exchanges in their ballroom. It is on the ocean at the mouth of the Quilayute River. To travel that far we decided to go for a full week in June, we ended up bringing 45 Seminoles with us of all ages from toddlers to elders.”

The Quinault Indian Nation consists of the Quinault and Queets tribes and descendants of five other coastal tribes: Quileute, Hoh, Chehalis, Chinook, and Cowlitz. Their ancestors lived on a major physical and cultural dividing line with beaches to the south that are wide and sandy, while to the north, they are rugged and cliff-lined. They have 23 miles of coveted Pacific coastline.

Exchanging stories about food gathering and preperation
Photos by Beverly Bidney

Living in family groups in long houses up and down the river, they were sustained by the land and by trade with neighboring tribes with their salmon runs, abundant sea mammals, wildlife, and forests that provided substantial material and spiritual wealth.

A great store of knowledge about plants and their uses helped provide for them particularly the western red cedar, the “tree of life,” that provided logs for canoes, bark for clothing, split boards for houses, and more. Hence theye are the Canoe People, the people of the cedar tree.

To prepare for such a lengthy trip and several events took some time.

“We brought with us Seminole costumes, instruments, and gifts for them. We planned to do Stomp Dances, and do the Catfish Dance. It was a free performance in the ballroom of the resort which quickly overflowed with people from several different tribes as the word got out. I had invited Keith Secola to come and play some contemporary music as he is great at getting crowds engaged and singing along. I had met him years ago on a Hard Rock Tour.”

“We did our songs, then the Quilhault did their songs, we talked about our differences and our similarities. We both live on oceans but it’s very different climate and foods.

“We eat catfish and gator, they eat salmon and elk. We had a feast one night where they prepared the salmon on cedar planks, white potatoes in a big pot. Another thing we have in common is that we are a canoe culture, so we planned a canoe trip about a mile up the river. They had two types of canoes – wood and more modern fiberglass. The canoes seat 11 to 14 people and it took a good 20 minutes just to balance the weight of them with people shifting around. Everybody needs to paddle to keep it going.

“The coastline is so beautiful – there are huge rock outcroppings and enormous driftwood trees all over the beach. And the water is cold! Around 50 degrees. It was so great we plan to take a longer trip next time all the way up to Alaska.”

“Another night we did a healing drum circle and told stories with 6 other tribes, that was powerful. We exchanged gifts of necklaces, patchwork bags, baskets. We had a photographer with us from our newspaper the Seminole Tribune but the songs were sacred so we did not take pictures that night.”

From his home in Arizona Secola says “The Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Quinault Nation of Washington shared a cultural exchange at the end of June. The Seminoles performed a welcoming dance for the Quinault Nation; they sang a song of honor, respect and friendship. They were in the heart of the Northwest Territory on the Pacific coast, waves of the ocean far from the Atlantic. Although of greatest distance of all tribes in the continental United States, the hearts and minds of the people are close.

This cultural exchange was beautiful to witness. It signifies the collaborative effort underway between tribes of all nations here on Turtle Island.

“The Seminoles take this initiative and transform it into reality for the people. We were privileged to hear and see the songs and dances of the Quinault Nation. Men sang canoe songs in a low hypnotic cadence; woman paddled the canoes into the room, that night a canoe journey unfolded before our eyes. Songs honored the whales in the ocean traveling nearby, songs to the salmon and elk. Dances of distinction, songs of distinct protocol describe the canoe journey. Friendships were made, knowledge was shared and eyes were opened, people were smiling, sovereignty.”


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