Spirit of the Land: Unearthing Native American Heritage
November 28, 2023
By Jessica Firpi ’11
With passion and purpose, a cohort of Rollins students set out to explore Native American history on an Immersion experience at Florida’s Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation.
Each year, Tars contribute thousands of hours of service to nonprofit organizations across the country through Rollins’ Immersion program. Facilitated by the Center for Leadership & Community Engagement, these one-of-a-kind service learning experiences give students the opportunity to engage cultural, environmental, social, and political issues right at the source during weekend and sometimes weeklong journeys of education, reflection, and action. Through direct community engagement and leadership development, these experiences show students firsthand the commitment it takes to effect real change in the world and the true responsibility of global citizenship.
In honor of Native American Heritage Month, which recognizes the achievements and contributions of Native Americans, the “Spirit of the Land: Unearthing Native American Heritage” Immersion connected a group of Rollins students to the traditions, arts, and food of the Seminole Tribe of Florida through the American Indigenous Arts Celebration (AIAC) at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation. The event was hosted by the Seminole Tribe and the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, which is home to more than 200,000 works of art and historic objects.
“This immersion is important because this is a topic that isn’t covered appropriately within American education,” says international relations major Giuliana Bertuso ’26. “I could see things that I’d read in books, but beyond that, I appreciated hearing directly from the natives rather than reading something written from a European perspective. I come from a country that has a lot of indigenous communities, and I wanted to learn more about my country.”
The vibrant tapestry of Native American culture was on display with the intricate craftsmanship of Whakairo wood carvings and raranga basket weaving, as well as performances from Native Pride and the HAKA Maori Cultural Experience, showcasing ancestral skills passed down through generations. The festival gave students an up-close look at mau rakau weaponry, the beauty of ta moko (tattoo), and the fusion of traditional and contemporary style in the Ahfachkee Youth Fashion Show and the Seminole Fashion Show. The event also featured a heartfelt Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) tribute.
“Not only were we able to support local businesses and get firsthand experience with the Seminole culture,” says philosophy and political science double major Erica Mungin ’24, “but we also got to interact with those from indigenous communities and listen to their stories.”
“As an Immersion facilitator, I developed more of my leadership skills and, at the same time, made room for everyone to feel a sense of belonging during the weekend,” shares Bertuso. “This Immersion allowed participants to start realizing that many institutions are structured to accommodate one way of living and tend to either limit or exclude others. It also lets you learn more, empathize, and interact with indigenous cultures.”
“I would say the overall theme of this trip was enlightenment,” says Mungin. “When we reflected on our experience, we all noticed that along with being able to do service work for the celebration, all of us were able to have really great and enlightening conversations with locals and those who also worked at the museum. We volunteered, learned from Seminole people, and immersed ourselves in the culture, where we were able to dig deeper than surface-level knowledge. I’ve started deconstructing our institutions to see how Native Americans and other marginalized communities could be included and feel a sense of belonging systemically, socially, and in every corner of our society.”
On Earth Day 1990, former Rollins president Thaddeus Seymour ’82HAL ’90H and Tina Osceola ’89 installed the Rollins College Walk of Fame stone for Tina’s ancestor Chief Osceola and the Seminole Tribe.
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