By: Timothy Hullihan
It is hard for non-native Americans to feel at home in Nature. Our history holds only a handful of exceptions that possess Thoreau-esque sensibilities, or Beston-esque desire. A oneness with all things makes it equally hard for indigenous people to understand a divergence from the natural world. The urge to own, conquer, control, and manage nature is at the heart of “civilized” society. Yet, the wisdom to live flexibly and peacefully within the rhythms and patterns of Nature is at the heart of indigenous cultures, and their sustainable lifestyles that preceded European settlers by many thousands of years.
When two men from these opposing worlds become close friends over many years of shared place and time, their private discussions evolve into a comfortable forum for embracing their differences. I recently learned a tiny piece of one such relationship from many years ago.
The place was the Brighton Indian Reservation in Hendry County, Florida. The time was the late-1950s when, according to Florida Hall of Fame artist, James Hutchinson, the small native American population living there still lived as they had for millennia, rarely saw non-native people, and spoke only their native language. Mr. Hutchinson, and his wife, Joan, accepted an opportunity jointly offered by the Owen K. Murphy and Arthur Vining Davis Foundations to live on the Brighton Seminole Reservation, and paint the Seminole and Miccosukee people over a period of 5-years. The 50 works produced during the late-50s and early-60s are in the Florida History Museum in Tallahassee.
The Hutchisons befriended many of the tribal elders and, in particular a medicine man named Naha Tiger. I learned this from Mr. Hutchinson at the opening of a show of his stunning Florida landscape paintings at MacArthur Beach State Park on January 12th. A small number of the works on display are signed with a Thunderbird symbol next to his name, so I asked him about what I assumed to be something special. I was not disappointed with the story that followed.
His answer was short, and probably intended to gauge my sincerity or depth of interest. “It was given to me, and I use it sometimes.” I pressed on.
With an ironic smile and twinkle in his eye, the rest of the story came forth. “A Miccosukee medicine man named Naha Tiger and I were discussing the finer points of art one afternoon.” Art for art’s sake was a foreign concept to Naha and his people. They made beautiful things of utility, but beauty was everywhere in their natural home and it was inherent, obligatory, and symbolic of their connected spiritual existence. Recreating beauty for non-utilitarian purposes, and then removing it from its place was not understood. When Naha learned that Mr. Hutchinson did this for money (another foreign concept), he needed to know more.
“How does it make you feel when you sell a painting you have made from this place?” Naha asked. “I feel good.” James replied, and a long period of silence followed as Naha tried to understand this. Then, Naha began to draw with a stick in the dirt. He drew the Thunderbird symbol, and explained that they are mythical figures. They are very powerful, for they have the power to control things, to make things happen, to create. “This is you.” Naha said to James, gesturing his way in a manner that bestowed it upon him. “You have the power to create.”
I am grateful to Mr. Hutchinson for sharing this story with me. I feel as if I am now part of a unique moment in time. Unique circumstances brought 2 unique people, from unique pasts together in a unique setting. Mr. Hutchison carries with him the great privilege of a deep connection with an ancient culture that no longer exists as it did for thousands of years. He carries forward a small symbolic remnant of a conversation with a friend, and a remnant of a peaceful and sustainable way of life that holds many lessons for “civilized” society.
Timothy Hullihan is an architect and freelance writer from North Palm Beach, Florida. He is also a board member of Sustainable Palm Beach County.