If all goes according to plan Wednesday night, Robin Merrill's fundraiser at the Stranahan House should become a time warp to the early 1900s. That was when members of the Seminole tribe paddled along the banks of the New River in dugout canoes, disembarking at Stranahan's trading post to barter with alligator skins.
Merrill calls her Paddle Up on the Himmarshee Canal event a "celebration" of the Seminole art and traditions that were cultivated in the area around what is now Fort Lauderdale, with an emphasis on the "lost art" of building dugout canoes.
"Listen, I'm not a member of any tribe. I'm a white Anglo lady," says Merrill, of Pompano Beach, who owns the nonprofit Upper Room Art Gallery at 1200 E. Las Olas Blvd. "But as I learned about the diminishing number of members of the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes, I asked around to see what I could to enrich their culture."
In December, Merrill's nonprofit gallery and fair-trade shop won a $30,000 Knight Art Challenge matching grant to stage "cross-cultural" events around Las Olas. Wednesday's jazzy gathering will feature a performance from the Dillard Jazz Ensemble, along with food samples from Las Olas restaurants Gran Forno Pronto, Big City Tavern and others, pumpkin-fry-bread tasting and a baby-alligator-petting activity.
On hand to display his leatherworks, tribal embroidery and wood carvings will be Seminole artist Pedro Zepeda, who will visit Merrill's gallery over the next two years to carve a traditional dugout canoe from a cypress log.
Hosting the lineup of Native American-friendly events in Fort Lauderdale was important to Merrill, as the city was the site of a Seminole War and massacre during the 1830s. Frank and Ivy Stranahan's house, also a hotel and a bank, became a nexus of Seminole activity in the early 20th century.
Proceeds raised from Wednesday's event will fund a series of free-to-the-public Paddle Ups on the Himmarshee canal, a tributary of the New River, in which members of the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes will row their dugout canoes, kayaks and standup paddleboards. The first is planned for October.
"It should be a human-powered spectacle," Merrill says. "It's funny, because when I first asked the Seminole guys about rowing dugout canoes, they pretty much laughed and said, 'Uh, we drive SUVs now. We don't row.' But then, it sparked a resurgence in learning the craft, and I think this can integrate all of the community."
Paddle Up on the Himmarshee Canal will run 6-9 p.m. Wednesday, April 30, at the Stranahan House, 335 SE Sixth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Admission is $50, with buy-one-get-one-free discounts for Stranahan House and Las Olas Village members. Call 954-592-6021 or go to UpperRoomArtGallery.com.