The Seminole Family Camp
The Seminole Family Camp
Abstract and Keywords
The chickee, the traditional Seminole Indian building, is a classic example of a traditional Florida building type. A part of Seminole life for a long time, it provides an environment for the Seminole Folklife Area at the Florida Folk Festival. To showcase several Seminole traditions, the Seminole Tribe of Florida has constructed a temporary family camp on the festival grounds. Crafts and foodways complement the building tradition itself. This chapter examines chickee architecture and the Seminoles’ family camp and their role in Seminole folklife in Florida. It first describes the form and construction of chickees and types of chickees, before turning to a discussion of their cultural associations and transitions.
THERE IS NO BETTER EXAMPLE OF A TRADITIONAL FLORIDA BUILDING type than the chickee, the traditional Seminole Indian building which has long been a part of Seminole life. Most Floridians recognize these structures and associate them with the Seminoles whether the name of the building and its background are familiar or not. Chickees provide an environment for the Seminole Folklife Area at the Florida Folk Festival.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida has generously installed a temporary family camp on the festival grounds to serve as a base for interpretive demonstrations of several Seminole traditions. The crafts and foodways found among the chickees complement the building tradition itself. The domestic activities suggest the customary daily routines that might be encountered in a camp on a Seminole reservation. In one of the chickees at the folk festival, men are on hand to demonstrate and discuss chickee building. The symbolic as well as practical significance of this kind of structure makes the chickee a central element in Seminole folklife and an ideal setting for the appreciation of Seminole heritage.
The chickee is undergoing a major transition. It is tempting to say that, like many reflections of folklife, this form is vanishing and that surviving examples will be gone within a generation or two along with the intimate knowledge of its construction and use. Signs of its decline are easy to find. The current status of the chickee, however, shows cultural tenacity, mirroring in a sense the evolution of the Florida Seminoles themselves.
The chickee grew out of the Seminole experience in nineteenth-century Florida when the Seminole Wars and tribal migration into south Florida made building an older type of permanent Indian dwelling impractical. History does not supply an account of the development of the chickee. From (p.85)
Form and Construction
Chickees were traditionally built in clusters. A single chickee served as a room rather than as a complete home by itself. The total number of these rooms changed to accommodate the number of individuals in the extended family who lived in a given encampment. According to James Billie, tribal chairman and former chickee building contractor, the elementary camp consisted of at least four chickees, each of a different design and use, usually arranged in a circle such as the one in the Seminole Folklife Area. A cooking chickee stood at the center. Around it were a dining area, utility area, and one or more sleeping chickees.
The basic structure of the chickee resembles that of any pole shed. Posts set into the ground support a rafter system, which, in turn, is covered with (p.86) roofing. The arrangement of the corner posts is usually rectangular, but rounded ends are built occasionally as are square and circular floor plans. Most chickees have open sides, but enclosed chickees, sided with materials such as palm leaves, boards, or paneling, are not uncommon. Doors and windows in sided examples are installed at points adjoining the posts. The floor of the chickee is dirt, and permanent furnishings such as platforms and counters are built on small posts sunk into the ground.
All the structural members of the chickee are of cypress. On the Big Cypress Reservation, these trees grow plentifully. Builders cut the poles shortly before construction begins and peel off bark. The wood is highly resistant to insects. A layer of bark on the poles will harbor bugs and promote decay. Poles vary in size according to their use in the structure: main posts being the largest, about eight inches in diameter for a standard-sized chickee, and rafters the smallest, two inches at the small end. The Seminole terms for many of the members refer to parts of the body. For example, posts are called “legs,” and rafters are “ribs.”
Traditionally the roof of the building is thatched with the leaves of the cabbage palm, which grow in abundance on the Brighton Reservation. The broad fronds, or “fans” as the Seminoles call them, make an excellent natural shingle. They are attached by their stems in rows to the rafters. The leading edge of the fans on the bottom row is rolled under to channel water. The top row is capped with a line of fans laid lengthwise along the ridge and secured with short lengths of crossed or broken limbs.
A characteristic, three-sided overhang on the end of the roof extends beyond the corner posts, increasing the area covered by the roof. This feature gives the structure the appearance of having a semicircular hipped roof. On the typical chickee, low-hanging eaves roughly four feet from the ground protect the interior from wind and rain as well as the casual glances of passersby.
As a temporary shelter in a remote, tropical wilderness the chickee is without rival. It affords protection from the sun and rain with maximum exposure to breezes. It can be erected quickly. Two men can build one in a few days. As a permanent residence, however, this kind of building has limitations. It can be cold on a damp winter day. When built well and maintained, one may stand for twenty years, but ten years is considered a long time for a chickee to last, and the roof must be recovered with fans approximately every five years.
The Seminoles modify the basic chickee design according to the type of use the structure is to have. Dimensions of the perimeter, for instance, vary considerably. A small sleeping chickee measures 10’ × 16’; a large dining (p.87)
On some roofs the overhanging end rises only part of the distance to the ridge creating a half-hipped effect. The most interesting modifications, however, distinguish one type of chickee from another.
Types of Chickees
The sleeping chickee fits the stereotypic image of the general Seminole building. The popular impression of this structure may come from the fact that the Seminoles often use the sleeping chickee as a place for doing crafts work. Inside it a simple platform, set two to three feet above the ground, provides a clean, dry, vermin-free surface for sitting, sleeping, or working. The platform occupies most of the area enclosed by the corner posts, with one side and end of the platform running along the outer edge of the floor plan with enough space on the other side and end to let an individual stand inside the (p.88) posts. Paul Bowers recalls that as a boy his family had a large sleeping chickee in which there were platforms at each end with a walking space between.
The Seminoles use the plates, beams, and horizontal braces of the roof system in the sleeping chickee for hanging clothes and insect netting at night. These structural members create an excellent storage loft as well. Boards and poles laid across them form shelves. Often during the day, and especially for periods when they plan to be away for several days, the inhabitants of the chickee roll their bedding and place it in this loft.
An open cooking fire is built in the center of the cooking chickee. This type of chickee frequently has a distinctive gable roof. The gable is open; the ridge of the roof extends beyond the corners of the eaves giving an outward slant to the end; and the eaves reach closer to the ground than those on other chickees. According to informants, this design allows smoke to escape easily from the cooking fire and affords good protection for the people inside. Counters, shelves, and cabinets are installed along the sides of the structure, making use of the low eaves; and pots, utensils, lights, and other items hang from the beams and rafters. A secondary work counter, which may be rigged with some type of running water, is frequently located outside nearby.
Other chickees have the basic form with certain identifying furnishings installed. The dining chickee, for example, contains a long table, possibly two if it is a long chickee, with benches on each side. In a large camp of a half dozen structures or more, the dining chickee is relatively near the cooking chickee. The utility chickee contains shelves, cabinets, and perhaps a counter.
Cultural Associations and Transitions
During recent trips to the Big Cypress Reservation, it was difficult for fieldworkers, even with the help of tribal members, to find good examples of the camps to document. Most Seminoles no longer live in chickees. They prefer the same advantages that other Americans enjoy in a building: permanence, comfort, and ease of care. A federal housing program, complemented by tribal building contractors and building material suppliers, are gradually filling the need for modern houses.
Current uses of the chickee indicate that they are coming to be regarded as outbuildings. Many of these are utility chickees, others serve as backyard canopies equipped with cement floors. An alternate use of chickees for some Seminoles is the development of a second home complex as a weekend and vacation retreat. Chickee builders working today have incorporated modern materials and conveniences in the structures. The ends of posts and poles in early chickees were notched to cradle the beams and rafters that rested on (p.89) them. Now they are sawed flat to butt against a crossing structural member. In the old chickees, major joints were pegged, and small ones were tied with strips of hide, vines, or roots. Today the joints are nailed together. Fronds were once secured with a strip from the edge of the frond tied around a rib. Now they are nailed as well. The addition of electricity is perhaps the most striking adaption. Posts and beams carry conduit and wire to switch boxes and outlets, giving contemporary chickees full electrical service comparable to that in any other building.
There was a time within recent memory when young men had to build their own chickee when they took a wife. This tradition is no longer followed. A few boys still learn the fundamentals of construction by helping their fathers and uncles build chickees when the opportunity arises, but they are a minority. Most have other interests, and the general expectation that males will use the art of building chickees as an adult no longer exists.
Chickees continue, however, to have symbolic value. An indication of this fact can be seen in the use of the cooking chickee as the principle image in the seal of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Chickees are the only buildings used at the sites of the Green Corn Dance, an annual ceremony of tribal affirmations. Many of the structures found on the ceremonial grounds are built with the old notched-pole techniques. Those young men who study tribal medicine with their elders at the Green Corn grounds must re-roof their own chickee each year using the method of tying the fronds with strips of the leaf fiber.
A new demand for chickees has emerged among non-Seminoles. Floridians in cities and subdivisions throughout south Florida want the structures beside their beach lots, pools, and patios. Interestingly, these other Floridians choose four different roof styles: Umbrella (single pole), Hawaiian (hipped), Polynesian (half-hipped), and the traditional Seminole. According to Paul Bowers, a chickee building contractor, the general preference is for the Polynesian. Non-Indian contractors also build chickees for this market, but the Seminoles have a competitive advantage. Because of their experience with the form and the availability of materials on their lands, they can offer high-quality workmanship and the best materials at a low cost.
It seems likely that a generation from now there will be no Seminoles living in clusters of chickees as the people of this tribe have done for over a century. Furthermore, given the rapid rate of decay that these structures are subject to, it is unlikely that any early examples will be preserved except as they are maintained at the Green Corn ceremonial grounds. Nevertheless, this Florida building has been adapted to contemporary life and shows promise of surviving through the enterprise of the people who created the form originally.