Tradition, not laws, regulate the business of chickee construction

    O.B. Osceola Sr., Seminole, stands beneath a large chickee hut at a waterfront park in Naples, Florida. Osceola Sr. and a three-person crew constructed the hut in early November. Tradition, not laws, tend to regulate business of chickee construction in Florida. AP Photo/Elaine Skylar

    by I.M. Stackel

    Naples, Florida (AP)

    It may be the closest thing Florida has to common law. You want a chickee built? Then hire a Miccosukee or a Seminole.

    From Marco Island to Fort Lauderdale, many South Floridians – including government officials – believe it is the law.

    In truth, it’s more of a tradition. Neither Florida nor local laws specifically state a person must hire an American Indian to construct the thatched huts, but woe to the pocketbook of the builder who doesn’t.

    State building codes don’t require Indians to be licensed contractors to build chickees. More importantly, Indians are exempt from filing engineering reports on chickees necessary to prove a structure can withstand hurricane-force winds.

    “Trying to calculate wind loads and do the engineering would be cost-prohibitive,” said Marty Conant, Naples’ building and zoning director. “It wouldn’t be economically feasible.”

    If it costs $1,500 to build the average chickee, it could cost an additional $1,500 to $2,000 to do the necessary engineering studies, he said.

    More to the point, no one would know how to do it, Conant said.

    There are more than a few chickees in southwest Florida, and they held up pretty well during the four storms that pounded Florida in August and September, Conant said. Several on Marco Island were damaged, however, even though the island was spared a direct hit.

    The engineering is just one of many issues that factor into the planning and construction of a chickee, a craft handed down from parents to children for generations, said O.B. Osceola Sr., Seminole.

    According to Seminole historians, the traditional chickee – a cypress log frame covered by a palmetto thatch – became necessary in the early 1800s when Seminoles had to run for their lives from U.S. troops. They needed fast, disposable shelters.

    Osceola surveyed an expansive chickee he recently completed for a waterfront park. He laughed at the thought of regulation, something state officials have attempted before backing away.

    Government officials have considered various ways to cash in on the chickee business, including requiring Indians to get general contractor licenses, and establishing schools to adequately train contractors, Osceola said.

    “Who would train the teachers?” asked the 70-year-old Osceola, who started learning his craft in 1942, helping his mom and dad.

    Another question is this: From where would contractors get the materials?

    Harvesting palm fronds is a lot easier for Indians than the average local trying to horn in on the work, members of the tribe say.

    “There’s certainly no prohibition against anyone else collecting them, but there might be access issues. Some (rich-in-trees locations) are not available to the whole world,” said Dione Carroll, a lawyer for the Miccosukee.

    In some areas, park management plans say vehicles can’t be used to take out palm fronds, she said. Actual harvesting of fronds in such locales is tied into and consistent with cultural practices, Carroll said.

    Some new chickees are constructed of pine, although older structures were cypress, now a protected tree, Osceola said.

    It takes at least four knowledgeable men to build a chickee. Intricate work requires the skill to integrate and anchor innumerable poles. Osceola had three helpers on his most recent project.

    State attempts to regulate chickee construction is still a flashpoint, said Tina Osceola, executive director of the Seminole Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation west of Fort Lauderdale.

    While state officials have pretty much scrapped the idea of trying to license Indians as contractors “because of the absurdity, it got dropped,” there’s friction over who may construct a chickee, said Tina Osceola, O.B. Osceola’s daughter.

    There are numerous attorneys embroiled in the issue.

    “There is a group of builders who are interested in getting together to further define (criteria such as) who can build (chickees). For example, we do not support anyone other than Seminole or Miccosukee persons building chickees,” Tina Osceola said. “There are some persons out there, of other ethnic origins, who are building ‘tikis’ and ‘chikis.’ We don’t support this.

    “If they are building (such structures), we believe they should go through appropriate licensing requirements because Seminoles and Miccosukees are practicing an Indigenous art form passed down from generation to generation.”

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