For a long time I have wanted to visit the United States and undertake that Great American Road Trip – to cruise from state to state stopping at every roadside curiosity along the way. I think that’s why I never went. I was declining any short visit, waiting until I felt I had time to finally do my great big road trip thing. When I did finally visit the States in 2014 it caught me by surprise; I didn’t plan it, but rather one thing led to another and I tagged along with some new friends I’d made in Haiti, to find myself in the Florida Everglades for a week.
Since then I have posted a couple of stand-alone stories from my visit – the mysterious Coral Castle and my trip to an abandoned Nike Missile Site (FYI, “WMDs in the Florida Keys” remains one of my all-time favourite headlines on this site) – but I haven’t shared much else about that week. And it was an interesting week, for sure.
In Florida I encountered a heavy cocktail of gun culture, religion, homeless shelters and alligators. I think I’m still processing much of what I experienced there, but I’m going to talk about some of it now; namely, a day trip I made to the Miccosukee Indian Village in Miami-Dade County.
As a European with no experience travelling west of the Atlantic, the idea of visiting a real Indian village was both novel and exciting; but as a descendent of white European imperialists, I also felt a sense of awkwardness in talking or writing about the subject, knowing the weight of racial politics involved and being painfully aware of my own dismal lack of research or understanding. I don’t even know, now, if I feel entirely comfortable typing ‘Indian Village’ at all (shouldn’t that be Native American Village?); but that’s the term the site offered, so I’ll be using it here throughout.
I’ll start at the beginning. The Miccosukee Indian Reservation is home to the Miccosukee tribe. It covers more than 120 square miles, and today includes the Miccosukee Sports & Entertainment Dome, a number of casinos, an airboat centre and the Miccosukee Indian Village: a cultural complex and museum.
Driving to the Indian Village we passed through a patchwork landscape of swamps, cypress groves, and, once we entered the territory of the reservation, a seemingly endless parade of roadside stores featuring big banner adverts for “Tax-Free Cigarettes!”
When we arrived at the village entrance we were greeted by a pristine coloured-tarmac drive, its centrepiece a garish plastic diorama of a man squaring off against an alligator. Any expectations I had of ethnographic authenticity soon vanished.
Beyond a perimeter fence, through the ticket office, the village itself felt a lot like a theme park. It was immediately clear that no one actually lived here, but rather the complex featured a series of artificial-looking huts and stalls with exhibitions on bead-art, weaving, and traditional campfire cookery. Most of the wares were for sale, from handmade jewellery to Hello Kitty print dresses; it seemed more like a market than a museum.
I took a walk around the territory, along raised wooden paths that bridged the reed-lined swamp. Every so often I passed beneath a totem pole, painted up bright in the colours of the tribe; they were made from wood, though they gave off a plastic ambience.
When I got back to the stalls at the centre of the village, one of the staff – a short, tattooed man in a colourful shirt – was gathering visitors around him for a presentation.
“How,” he said, holding up a hand in greeting.
“How!” the grinning crowd replied, returning the gesture; but immediately the presenter cut in:
“…are you all doing today?” He followed the bluff with a look of mock disdain, as if disappointed by the patronising greeting from the crowd. There was an uneasy silence all round, and this was just the first in a series of jokes that were designed to bait the crowd into making apparently racist or stereotypical comments… only to punish them after with frowns and awkward silences.
The whole thing made me very uncomfortable. Turning the tables is one thing – an American Indian man should have every right to make race-related jokes at the expense of white people! – but this didn’t feel like it was fun for anyone. I thought I sensed a quiet animosity from our host. Afterwards, when I tried to talk with him alone I managed just a few words before he shut me down with a gesture of his hand and took a call on his mobile phone instead.
Next came the ‘Gator Show.’
I’m no reptile expert, but watching alligators get dragged about by their tails, beaten with sticks and made to perform humiliating tricks, felt borderline abusive. I left the village before it finished, exiting through the gift shop.
Everything about the Miccosukee Indian Village made me feel unpleasant, and here’s the really awkward thing: the Indians I encountered there seemed to be behaving exactly according to the worst stereotypes I had heard about them. If there hadn’t been weighty racial and historical factors to consider (and the staff reminded us at every opportunity that there were), I might have described the place as an example of heritage getting sold out and polluted by materialism. But in this scenario, I don’t know if that’s fair.
The more I think about it, the more it seems to me outrageously patronising for a white European to recommend what these people ought to be doing with their culture (or at least, with what remains of it since the arrival of white Europeans). Perhaps I had no right to enter this place and expect to be entertained.
Or maybe, places like the Miccosukee Indian Village serve as a decoy. Maybe it’s a theme park, exactly what it looks like, where stupid white people are squeezed for their money in a plastic simulacrum of Indian culture; while real people continue their real culture elsewhere, away from prying eyes. Maybe it’s the same as those awful beach resorts in Bulgaria, cultural voids like ‘Sunny Beach’ which have nothing Bulgarian about them and exist solely for making money from Western tourists.
All I know is that I spent a full afternoon at an Indian cultural complex and museum, I read every word of information provided, I spoke to everyone who would let me, and still I feel I know zero about American Indian culture.