Folklife Area

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Sharing Florida's Traditional Culture


Each year the Florida Department of State's Florida Folklife Program presents the Florida Folklife Area of the Festival.  The 2018 theme of the Florida Folklife Area will be announced shortly.  While the Florida Folklife Program is busily researching next year's theme, take a moment to learn about what you missed in 2017.


Southwest Florida Folklife

By Eric Griffis, Amanda Hardeman, & Eleanor Wachs



The 2017 Folklife Area celebrates the folklife of Southwest Florida, and features folk artists identified by Florida Folklife Program fieldworkers Eric Griffis and Eleanor Wachs during an eight-month survey of the region.  Some of the earliest inhabitants of Florida’s west coast were the Calusa, who built a complex fishing culture. The Spanish regarded them as fierce, but over time their numbers dwindled until the remaining Calusa joined the Seminole or evacuated to Cuba. After the Seminole Wars pushed the native people further south, pioneers settled the prized prairies north of the Caloosahatchee River which created a natural boundary separating the desirable interior from the swampy wilderness. The same inhospitable environment that allowed the Seminoles to evade capture provided protection to outlaws and intrepid explorers bound for one of the last frontiers on the continent. Entrepreneurs set up trading posts in the Everglades where they exported hides, plumes, livestock, and timber, and imported modern conveniences. In the 20th Century, tracks and roads were built and drainage canals were dug to expose the rich soil for agricultural use from Clewiston to Immokalee, resulting in an influx of permanent and seasonal residents, farmworkers, and tourists.


The traditional expressive culture, or folklife, of Southwest Florida is representative of the disparate groups who call the region home. The area’s folklife is a product of its geography and history, and a reflection of evolving community aesthetics and values where historically rooted elements of “old Florida” are maintained alongside modern folk arts practiced by new communities and seasonal residents.


Maritime, Ranching & Hunting

Boat building, fishing, animal husbandry, and hunting are some of the region’s oldest traditional skills. They were key to survival for early inhabitants and settlers, and continue to serve as cross cultural unifiers. Folk Heritage Award winner and boatbuilder, Bob Pitt, was immersed in the culture of the islands of Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas. His Bahamian heritage included 18th century shipbuilders and captains, and he learned from some of the last remaining traditional craftsmen. Pitt will regale Folklife Area visitors with family stories and his knowledge of the trade.


Net maker, Dennis McDaniel, is from a multi-generational Southwest Florida family of fishing boat captains in Naples where being able to make, use, and repair your own net was a rite of passage. As Naples grew, the small fishing village transitioned into a seasonal resort town. McDaniel became a homicide detective with the Collier County Sheriff’s Department, making nets in his spare time to escape the stresses of the job. He continues to make nets using the same techniques employed by the Spanish and Calusa centuries before, which he will demonstrate at the Folklife Area.


Southwest Florida’s ranching culture is influenced by its difficult terrain. Cattlemen found creative ways to navigate their environment and solve common problems. Folk Heritage Award winning buckskin whip maker, Buddy Mills of Okeechobee, learned the traditional skills required of a Florida cowboy from his father, including how to make whips and swamp cabbage, which he will demonstrate Saturday at the Folklife Area.


Known for its spectacular hunting and fishing, the region is home to many skilled guides and taxidermists including Ed Vitale, of Bad to the Bone Taxidermy in Englewood. Traditionally learned through apprenticeship, taxidermy involves complex skills including skinning, gutting, tanning, sculpture, and painting. Vitale is adept in the art of preservation and has applied his skills to create mounts for hunters, museums, and to memorialize companion animals. He will discuss the art of hunting and taxidermy in light of his experiences in Florida.


Material Arts

Southwest Florida’s material arts are a reflection of the region’s diverse population and often incorporate local natural resources. Linda Beletso, of the Seminole Tribe, learned traditional arts from her family in the Immokalee and Big Cypress areas. She is most known for her sweetgrass basketry and beadwork jewelry. Beletso has passed these traditions on to her daughter and granddaughters, and demonstrates at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. She will present basketry and patchwork throughout the weekend.

In addition to indigenous arts, the region is home to an array of folk arts carried across state and national borders. Educator and quilter Betty Ford-Smith was born in New Rochell, NY, but for many years has lived in Sebring where she learned to make pine cone quilts from 92-year-old Arlene "Miss Sue" Dennis.  The pine cone quilt consists of three dimensional, overlapping triangles pieced in a circular pattern. Ford-Smith apprenticed with Miss Sue for six years and after her passing, began teaching this style to others. Learn how to make this dynamic quilt in her workshops.


Transplanted New Englander and second generation chair caner, Earl Baker, has lived in Parrish for over thirty years.  Now retired, he spends his time repairing chairs in his home workshop, demonstrating at the Manatee Village Historical Park, or setting up on a corner in Arcadia, to cane and find new customers. He will be demonstrating at the Folklife Area all weekend.


Music & Dance

The music and dance traditions of Southwest Florida are important aspects of social life, practiced in a variety of contexts including ethnic festivals, clubs, restaurants, and in sacred settings. Led by Marta Sicajan, a group of Mayan descendants from Guatemala perform sacred ceremonies involving dance in Fort Myers and Immokalee. At the Folklife Stage, Espirtu Maya will perform on Saturday, and Sicajan will discuss Mayan culture and belief Sunday where Folklife Area participants can share in a traditional Mayan water blessing on the banks of the Suwanee River


Celebrated tres guitar performer Renesito Avich of Sarasota, learned from master musician Pancho Amat in Santiago de Cuba. He has since mastered the son, or traditional folk music of Cuba, and continues to explore the related styles of nengon, changui, and kiriva in original compositions that he will perform on the Amphitheater and Folklife stages.


Plena Es has carved a space for Puerto Rican music by emphasizing the island’s distinctive bomba y plena traditions. Bomba is the 17th-century music created by West African slaves on Puerto Rico’s sugar plantations. Plena combined bomba with indigenous Taino music, jibaro music of the island’s mountain farmers, chamber music of the Spanish colonizers, and the rhyming verse of urban satirists. Don’t miss the intoxicating rhythms of the panderos (hand drums) in their Saturday performance on the Amphitheater Stage, and catch their workshop Sunday on the Folklife Stage.


The Folklife Area will also feature 2017 Folk Heritage Award recipients, Willie Green and Haiqiong Deng. Green is a blues musician who as a migrant laborer, traveled throughout the southeast and as far north as Maine. He learned to play the harp, or harmonica, in labor camps and informal house jams. He later settled in Florida where he is a regular performer at The Yearling Restaurant in Hawthorne. Deng was born in Lanzhou, China where she learned to play the traditional Chinese guzheng at a young age. She studied at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and toured internationally before settling in Tallahassee where she is the Director of the FSU Chinese Music Ensemble.


Entertainment & Tourism

Traditions of entertainment and tourism are particularly rich in Southwest Florida which is home to swamp buggy tours, alligator wrestling, and the circus. This month, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, which has wintered in Sarasota since 1927, will host their final performances. As the 146-year-old circus closes it doors, many are reflecting on the impact of the circus arts in Southwest Florida and nationally. Next month, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival will bring circus arts to life on the National Mall, while the Folklife Area will celebrate the living traditions of circus artists with presentations by professional clowns Karen Bell and Robin Eurich. Bell is the only female clown to have a solo ring gag on the Ringling Bros. Circus. Now, she is the Outreach and Education Manager for The Circus Arts Conservatory, dedicated to preserving and promoting circus arts. Eurich got his start in San Francisco training in Improvisational Theater, Mime, Commedia Del Arte and Juggling. He went on to attend and teach at the Ringling Bros. Clown College, and act in feature films. With Bell, he teaches physics, circus, and language arts in 25 local schools. The duo will discuss clown traditions and circus history.

For more relaxed entertainment, the people of St. Petersburg are grabbing their cue sticks and hitting the shuffleboard courts at the historic St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club, founded in 1924. This family friendly game is experiencing a resurgence among young professionals in the region. Join us at the Folklife Area to play a few frames and learn about its history.


The region boasts many attractions, but some of the most engaging are owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum is located on Big Cypress Reservation where it maintains the Library and Archives, an Oral History Program, permanent and temporary exhibits, and a Living Village. Billie Swamp Safari is another popular attraction. The wildlife park features airboat tours, swamp buggy rides, critter shows, and alligator wrestling. Alligator wrestling was popularized as a tourist attraction in the 1900s, but this performance is derived from the traditional knowledge and practical skills once required of Florida’s native people. These skills are still relevant today for wildlife officials and trappers who regularly retrieve alligators from backyards.


Well-respected alligator wrestler, Paul Simmons, traces the lineage of his training to the original South Florida showmen of a century ago. As a teenager, he wrestled gators for Bobby Henry at the Seminole tourist village where the Tampa Hard Rock Café now stands, and many notable wrestlers of today consider him a mentor. Join Simmons and Marcus Hunger of The Gator Grappler Wildlife Shows at the Folklife Area to experience a modern alligator wrestling show, incorporating environmental education and the cultural history of the practice.


In terms of sports and fitness, Big Cypress Martial Arts offers integrated martial arts training for tribal members. With a mission to develop a strong community rooted in its history and culture, Charlie Osceola founded Osceola’s Warrior Legacy, a group trained in Seminole fighting techniques. Drawing on both the historical record and stories passed down, the group demonstrates Seminole War era fighting techniques and survival skills, providing an enlightening alternative interpretation of Florida history. Don’t miss the group’s thrilling demonstrations at the Folklife Area.  


Agriculture & Foodways

Agriculture continues to thrive in Southwest Florida, which is one of the major producers of tomatoes in the United States. The Immokalee branch of the Farmworker Association of Florida and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers both serve the region’s Latin American and Haitian farmworkers by advocating on behalf of workers, and providing a gathering place for cultural activities and the sharing of food traditions. Stop by the Folklife Stage each day at noon to try a different Haitian dish prepared by Liliane Nerette Louis.



Since 1984, the Apprenticeship Program has enabled master folk artists to share skills and knowledge with apprentices to preserve Florida’s traditional arts. Teams will share the results of their apprenticeships at the Folklife Area. Aida Rodriguez and Nivia Gracia (Winter Garden) will demonstrate mundillo lace; Liliane Nerette Louis, Joanne Hyppolite, Fabienne Josephat, and Marie Theodore Pharel (Miami) will demonstrate Haitian foodways and folk medicine; Mal Jones and Amari Murrell (Jacksonville) will demonstrate freestyle hip hop; Tom Granado and Javier Jimenez (Webster) will demonstrate norteño accordion. For more information on how to participate in this program, call 850.245.6427.