Florida Seminole and Miccosukee
By Dorothy Downs
Florida Seminole and Miccosukee Indian elders say, "We are not from here," and that is true. The ancestors of these people moved into the north Florida region in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries after the original inhabitants were gone. There are several versions of origin myths of the Seminoles and Miccosukees told in a tradition of oral history. One account tells that the ancestors of the Miccosukee people dropped from heaven and fell into Lake Mikasuki, near present day Tallahassee, where they swam ashore and built their town. Another tells of many years of migrations down rivers and creeks.
There are written historical accounts of the first Floridians, such Indian groups as the Timucua, Apalachee, Ais, Tequesta, and Calusa. The arrival of Spanish explorers and the establishment of missions in Florida brought epidemics of new diseases introduced by these white men which soon decimated most of the Indian population. The rest were eliminated by slaving, involvement in battles between the Spanish and British for the control of Florida, or they fled the area. By 1710, with the exception of a few stragglers, the native Indian people of Florida were virtually annihilated.
Bands of Indian people who primarily lived along the creeks and rivers in Georgia and Alabama began moving into the uninhabited region. Most were members of the so-called Creek confederacy or nation, a loosely organized association. Although they had their own names for their people, British Carolinians first applied the name "Creek Indians" to Indian people living in towns along the Ocheese Creek, an important trade route now known as the Ocmulgee River. They began designating the term Upper Creeks to western Indian towns in Alabama above the forks of the Alabama River. Lower Creeks applied to people living in eastern Indian towns in Georgia.
These groups spoke several languages, the most prominent of which was Muskogee, used for communication among all of the groups. Dialects of the Muskogean language, Hitchiti or Mikasuki, also were spoken.
Study of changes in dress or the evolution of clothing styles over time offers an informative perspective of their art history, as dress was their primary art form. We have some idea of the dress of Creeks in 1734, at the time of early contact with the British in Georgia. Portraits were made of a Creek leader, Tomochichi, and his group when they were taken by General James Oglethorpe to visit the Trustees for establishing the Colony of Georgia in London. A mezzotint portrait was made of Tomochichi and his nephew, Tooanahowi, son of the mico or chief of the Hitchitis. Both wear fur robes and ties at their neck and are bare-chested. Tomochichi's chest is decorated with a bold linear design. A group portrait with his warriors in fur robes show some of the changes that took place, the addition of beaded accessories and a new dress worn by Tomochichi's wife, Senauki.
European colonists settled in the Southeast and their traders moved among the Indian people. Traders introduced appealing new goods and some married Indian women from powerful clans. A very adaptive people, Indians were immediately taken by the new goods and readily accepted them for their own uses. Shiny and colorful European glass beads replaced the shell beads the Indians had previously worn for decoration along with their tattooing or body paint. Wool and cotton cloth replaced hides for clothing.
European clothing items, shirts and coats were first given as gifts but soon Indian women copied them, using the new cloth materials, metal needles, and thread traded for deer hides. Many of the traders among the Creeks were Scottish Highlanders. Unlike other European men on the Southern frontier who wore trousers, Highlanders wore their native kilts with a shirt and jacket. As opposed to the true skirt style of kilt known today, the basic element of this Highland garb was somewhat similar to the Indian breechcloth. It consisted of a wool plaid cloth some sixteen feet in length. It was secured around the waist by a belt and hung at the front and back in flaps that almost reached the knees. The remainder of the piece in back could be looped over the shoulder and held with a brooch, tucked in, or used as a cloak. Indian men easily adapted to an unconfining skirt-like attire of shirt and coat worn with a breechcloth underneath for their own unique style of dress made from European wool and cotton cloth. The women began to dress more like colonial women, wearing calico blouses and long skirts with several strands of glass bead necklaces.
The introduction of European trade goods caused a distinct change in the way of life for these Creek Indian people, known for their highly developed cultures, rich artistic traditions, elaborate ceremonialism, and a love of competitive ball games between towns. There was a change in values and priorities for a time as the people became very acquisitive.
Creek men and women had distinct gender roles in their culture. Traditionally, men were the hunters and warriors, with the taking of enemy scalps a mark of prestige in the community. Men spent increasingly more time and went greater distances to hunt deer or other animals providing furs or skins for trade. While they were away from home longer, there was less time for rituals, so there was a breakdown in ceremonialism.
The women's role included gardening, weaving, basketry, pottery, and caring for the family. To be able to acquire the desired trade goods, women busied themselves in the time-consuming task of dressing the hides. Therefore, there was less time for traditional arts and crafts such as making pottery, which was primarily limited to utilitarian cooking or eating vessels made of brushed clay with simple rim decoration.
Intensified European pressure on the Indians for control of land and a decrease in the deer population by hunters forced many Creek groups to look south to Florida. For several hundred years, Mikasuki-speaking hunters traveled into the region as far south as the Everglades seeking deer and other game. Their first known settlements in the eighteenth century actually were in the Lake Mikasuki region near present-day Tallahassee. These people became known as Mikasukis to non-Indians. The phonetic usage now is Miccosukee in reference to the people and their language, although Mikasuki is still used in some instances.
Muskogee-speaking people were basically sedentary farmers. They settled near present-day Gainesville in the 1740s. Non-Indians at first called them Seminolies. The word is thought to be derived from the Spanish word cimarrón, meaning "wild or runaway," and probably was used because of the maroons or runaway slaves who were living nearby and friendly with the Indians. Cimarrón became simalóni in the Muskogee language, which does not recognize the "r" sound. By 1765, they were referred to as "Seminole" in British documents.
Life in Florida initially was relatively pleasant as the people settled in small towns or communities in this land of opportunity. There was an abundant supply of fish, game, and wild plant foods. They lived in log cabins and some raised cattle. Their economy was good, as the women were successful farmers and their gardens supplied produce they could trade along with hides for the luxury goods, tools, and weapons provided by white traders.
Although the nuclear family was the primary social unit, the Seminoles retained the Creek tradition of close ties with their matrilineal clan relatives. Clans often determined household arrangements, with settlements made up of women all related and of the same clan living in several houses built around a central square. Their husbands were from another clan. Clan continued to play a major role in Seminole social organization, living patterns, and culture in this matrilineal society. Totemic clans are known by names that reaffirm the people's belief about their alliance with the first ancestors such as Panther, Bird, and Otter, or Wind clan ties with the supernatural and are the basis of many myths and legends. Seminole settlements continued to be matrilocal.
These Florida Indians basically cut contact with leaders of the Creek nation in Georgia and Alabama. Their groups were small and scattered, but they maintained contact with each other in Florida. They retained some aspects of Creek ritualism, such as purification rites, Green Corn Dance, Hunting Dance, and inter-group rivalries in ball games.
The Americans under the leadership of Andrew Jackson aggressively began to pursue the removal of all Indians from the Southeast. Jackson's troops fought against the Upper Creeks in Alabama in the Creek War of 1813-14. In the aftermath of defeat at the battle of Horseshoe Bend, many more Creek groups fled into Florida.
The very success of the Seminoles brought their downfall. White pioneers favored by the Americans were reluctant to settle in Florida, with an increasing population of prosperous Indian and black communities. Some of the blacks had married Indians, strengthening their ties. Jackson turned his fury to Florida from 1817-1818, his troops and some highly acculturated Lower Creeks led by Chief William McIntosh mercilessly burning the crops and homes of Indians. They took cattle, valuables, supplies, and captured many runaway slaves and Afro-Seminoles. This became known as the First Seminole War which marked the beginning of a difficult time for the once prosperous Seminoles. The Indian and black families fled farther south.
The large numbers of runaway slaves fleeing to Florida and finding refuge with the Indians created alliances that were beneficial to both parties. Blacks who had lived on plantations spoke some English and soon learned the Indians' Muskogean dialects, so they were able to serve as interpreters and trusted advisors for Seminole leaders. They brought skills from their own African culture which they shared with the Seminoles, as well as new skills they learned from plantation life.
The problem of slaves escaping to live among the Seminoles in Florida gave slave holders a strong incentive to increase efforts for the removal of all Southeastern Indians. A bill for removal of all eastern Indians to the land west of the Mississippi was signed by Congress in 1830. In 1832, some Seminole chiefs were coerced to sign the Treaty of Paynes Landing, agreeing to relocate to Indian Territory in a part of Arkansas which is now Oklahoma. A delegation of seven chiefs was sent to inspect the land, accompanied by the black interpreters Abraham and Cudjo. Under the threat of being stranded there, they agreed to removal of their people even though they lacked the authority to do so. Upon the chiefs return to Florida, the Indians were angered when they heard of the agreement. The principal chiefs, Jumper, Alligator, Micanopy, and others refused to go.
The Second Seminole War began in 1835, with two carefully planned events. The first, on December 28, was the attack led by Seminole Chiefs Alligator and Jumper against Major Francis Dade, eight officers, and over one hundred enlisted men as they moved from Fort Brooke to Fort King. Dade and all of his men but three were killed in an ambush near Wahoo Swamp. Luis Pacheco, a slave guide hired to lead Dade, also survived and became an interpreter for the Indians.
The second incident took place almost simultaneously, when the popular warrior Osceola killed General Wiley Thompson, superintendent of Seminole removal. Osceola's hatred of Thompson resulted from an incident when Thompson had Osceola put in irons and then confined after Osceola's outburst of abusive language. The humiliated Osceola had plenty of time to plot his revenge, the assassination of Thompson.
A tragic hero, it is possible that Osceola might have had wife who was the freeborn daughter of a slave mother and Indian father who was seized by slave hunters in 1835. Osceola was captured under a white flag of truce in 1837. While imprisoned at Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina, he was accompanied by a party of fifty, including his two wives, one or two children, a sister, three warriors and the remainder who were black men, women, and children. His portrait in his finest dress was painted shortly before he died in 1838 by artist George Catlin . The Second Seminole War ended without a treaty in 1842. Many of the Indian people were killed and others were sent to Oklahoma along with their black friends and families.
Chief Billy Bowlegs was the leader of the few remaining Seminoles in Florida. U.S. troops and surveyors crossed Indian land and harassed the people. The Third Seminole War began in 1855, when Indians attacked a survey party after some of the men stole bananas from Bowlegs' camp. It ended in 1858 as Bowlegs and most of the remaining people, weary of war, relented and were ultimately sent to Oklahoma. Portraits made of his party while they stopped in New Orleans on their way were included in an article in Harper's Weekly. Among those depicted were Bowlegs in his finery, his younger wife, the brother of his older wife, and his black advisor, Ben Bruno, shown wearing a new custom-made suit.
Throughout their time of hardship, Indian leaders proudly dressed in shirts, calico coats, feathered turbans, impressive bead-embroidered shoulder bags, and silver gorgets and other jewelry to confront their enemy in negotiations. Although the number of militant leaders and their population decreased from thousands to around two hundred, they remained unconquered when the wars finally ended.
This began a period of isolation for the few determined holdouts who hid in the wilderness, avoiding contact with whites living in south Florida. Most Indians lived in small family or clan groups. Miccosukee-speaking people sought the isolation of the Everglades and the Big Cypress Swamp region. Muskogee-speaking people settled near Lake Okeechobee.
In this hot, humid environment, families set up camps on hammocks, the higher ground. They built chickees, a style of thatched-roof houses. We know thatched roof architecture had been adopted as early as 1830 from a painting by Seth Eastman of the village of chief Arpeika. With open-sides, chickees were well suited to the climate. They glided from hammock to hammock in dugout canoes hollowed from single cypress logs. There was a natural abundance of fish, game, and native fruits. The women cared for gardens where corn and other crops flourished. They sewed clothing for their families by hand, but supplies were limited, as the people maintained their policy of staying away from the hated whites.
By the 1880s, the people ventured out of their camps and families traveled by oxcart or canoe to visit traders who set up shop in the wilderness. Indians brought animal pelts, plumes of exotic birds such as the snowy egrets and roseate spoonbills, and alligator hides to trade for supplies, cotton cloth, and colorful glass beads. Indians formed friendships with the traders and their families.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, hand-cranked sewing machines were introduced for sale. Traders' wives taught Indian women, and some men, how to use the amazing machines. The women began experimenting, cutting and sewing more bands of cloth to make their family's clothing. At some point, rickrack was added to the rows of cloth.
This period of relative prosperity was short lived. In 1900, the Lacey Law was passed which put the plume birds under federal protection. Primarily white hunters but also Indian hunters had all but wiped out the bird rookeries in their lust for the lucrative feathers. The fragile ecosystem of the Everglades was dramatically unbalanced when canals were cut in 1906 and 1913. Wetlands were drained, greatly reducing the fish and game populations.
The real estate boom in the growing cities of Miami and Fort Lauderdale and interest in tourism spurred more changes. Now strapped economically, numerous Indian families chose to live part of the year in exhibition villages such as Coppinger's Tropical Gardens, a popular tourist attraction that opened on the Miami River. Tourists from the Northeast had read about the Seminoles and were eager to see their exotic lifestyle in their chickees. By 1917, some families carried on their daily routine under visitors' watchful eyes, made souvenirs to sell in the gift shops, and the men wrestled alligators for tourists' amusement. It was around this time that the first rows of patchwork designs were added to the bands of their clothing, worn with many strands of bead necklaces and silver ornaments.
Completion of the Tamiami Trail (US 41) in 1928 connected Miami with Florida's West Coast. Once more the Everglades ecology was disturbed as the flow of water was cut off from areas south of the road. Miccosukee-speaking families established camps along the "Trail," as it became known, for easy access into Miami. Some opened their camps to tourists and sold the crafts they made. The road also brought non-Indian hunters and fishermen to compete for a dwindling supply of game and fish. White hunters had superior equipment than the Indians, giving them the competitive edge.
The establishment of reservations was inevitable for the protection of the Florida Indian people. Land was set aside for the Big Cypress Reservation in 1917, a result of the efforts of the Friends of the Seminoles. The land was good only for hunting and fishing, and at first the Indians refused to live there. The Dania Reservation, later known as the Hollywood Reservation, was established in 1926. Mrs. Ivy Stranahan and her husband, the Fort Lauderdale trader Frank Stranahan, were longtime friends of the Seminoles. Mrs. Stranahan encouraged several families, including medicine woman Annie Tommie and her large family, to move to the Dania Reservation. Mrs. Stranahan was interested in educating Seminole children, which at first met serious and even life-threatening opposition from the elders. A one-room school was built on the reservation, which had limited success. After a record enrollment of fifty students in 1934, it closed in 1936 because of poor attendance and some of the students were sent to Cherokee Boarding School in North Carolina.
The passage in Congress of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1933 brought expansion to reservations, funds for development of economic ventures, and encouragement of the American Indian way of life, including religion, arts, and crafts. Brighton Reservation was established in 1935 near Lake Okeechobee for Muskogee-speaking people who had camps in the region. Their leaders expressed interest in 1938 for a school, hospital, community buildings, and better cattle and horses.
Mr. and Mrs. William Boehmer were brought to Brighton Reservation in 1939 to open a school and were in charge of educational work and community development. Mrs. Boehmer encouraged women's work in crafts, and established the Seminole Crafts Guild of Glades County. The development of Florida Indian arts and crafts took a giant step forward when Deaconess Harriet M. Bedell began her work at the Glade Cross Mission in 1933. All were seriously interested in helping the people become self-supporting through their native arts and crafts. Bedell was vehemently opposed to the tourist exhibition camps, which had become a refuge for economically depressed Indian families. She said, "exhibit their arts and crafts, not people." She established quality standards, encouraged good design, and opened new markets for Indian crafts. She wrote to the Bishop in 1941, "each woman has a sewing machine and the designs in their costumes are works of art. The designs do not mean anything but are suggestive of running water, a horse's mane, lightning, etc. The women and girls make dolls from palmetto fiber, baskets, and other novelties."
Bedell encouraged the women to make baskets and dolls to sell. They made twill-weave baskets of palmetto stems for their own use, such as sets of three corn-sifting baskets or envelope-shaped containers used for religious purposes, holding herbs for medicine or other special objects for healing. Bedell urged them to weave baskets to sell, and they began making large pack or trash baskets and berry baskets.
The coiling technique used to make baskets of sweet grass was re-introduced and encouraged. Coiling is not thought to be native to the Southeast, but may initially have been taught to Seminoles by slaves who brought the skill from Africa. Other sewing skills learned on plantations they shared were appliqué and bead embroidery. Small coiled sweet grass baskets sewn with colorful thread soon proved to be popular souvenirs.
Palmetto fiber dolls, dressed in appropriate tribal dress and hairstyles of the period, also became very popular souvenirs. Men carved wooden toys, model canoes, alligators, totems poles, bows and arrows, and spoons to bring in extra income. All of these crafts continued to be an important part of the income of some Seminole and Miccosukee families through the 1990s.
The 1930s through the 40s was the high point of Seminole dress, as they became known as one of the most colorful of all the Native American Indian groups. Women wore their hair dramatically pulled over a crescent frame covered with black cloth. It was fashionable to pile on as many strands of bead necklaces as they could afford. Many finely-made rows of patchwork decorated women's skirts and men's jackets. These designs are not symbolic but some designs were inspired by elements of nature, such as rain and fire. Others were named for things they resembled in the Indian environment such as a turtle, a crawdad, or a man-on-horseback. Crosses and letters of the alphabet were the subject of designs. A rainbow of colors was used to make clothing.
Clothing styles and patchwork designs evolved over the years. These changes have been documented in dated archival photographs and basically can be classified by decades. Designs based on an X were created in the 1960s, they were easy to learn to make and simple changes in color arrangement made each design unique. New large designs were created by women who watched quilting shows on Miami television in the 1980s. Instead of sewing them square to square, they turned the designs point to point and surround them with rickrack.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida was legally incorporated in 1957 and maintains tribal offices on the Hollywood reservation. Seminoles also live in Big Cypress, Immokalee, Tampa, and Brighton reservations. The Miccosukee Tribe of Florida was incorporated in 1962 by leaders who wanted their people to maintain their homes and way of life in the Everglades. They were granted reservation land adjoining the Tamiami Trail some forty miles west of Miami, where their tribal offices are located.
A South Florida Indian today is called a Seminole or Miccosukee depending on the tribe with which that person is registered. Some people have decided to switch their tribal registration from one tribe to another because of political preferences, change in residence, or for other reasons. Other people choose to remain independent and are not registered with either tribe.
Linguistically, people who primarily speak the Miccosukee language live on the Miccosukee reservation or the Seminole reservations at Hollywood, Big Cypress, Immokalee, and Tampa. Muskogee-speaking Seminoles live on the Brighton reservation. With the exception of a few very old people, all of the people speak English. Children in tribal schools are taught in bilingual programs to read and write in English and their native language. A few people speak all three languages.
Seminoles and Miccosukees annually celebrate their only remaining religious ceremony, the Green Corn Dance, which maintains some aspects of ancient Creek ceremonies. This takes place during four days in late May or early June, on dates determined by the medicine men. Their religion centers around the teachings of Breathmaker, or Creator, who gave them this "pointed land" known as Florida, and taught them how to live on it with their fellow creatures.
The medicine men own the sacred bundles and each holds ceremonies at one of three isolated locations. Ties with Breathmaker and spiritual medicine are restored at the Green Corn Dance ceremonials which are a time of purification, renewal, and unification featuring the sacred fire and the medicine bundle. Boys of the right age get their new names, court is held, ball games are played, and there are all-night dances around the fire. It also a time for socializing with clan relatives and people love to wear their finest new outfits.
The Miccosukees have an annual art festival from December 26-January 1. Miccosukees model in fashion shows and tribal members and other Native Americans sell their arts, crafts, and food in booths. A summer music festival is held in July.
The annual Seminole Tribal Fair and Powwow on the Hollywood reservation is held in the second week of February. Powwow dancers and artisans from other tribes come to compete for prizes and sell their art. Seeing the art of other Native American artists makes the Seminoles and Miccosukees aware of how unique their patchwork clothing is, which instills greater pride in their primary art form.
The most anticipated and colorful event is always the clothing competition, when Seminole tribal members compete for cash prizes. Imaginative use of patchwork, like the Seminoles themselves, is ever-changing with the times. Since the event first began in 1971, women have competed in capes and skirts with many rows of carefully made patchwork and the men wear brilliant jackets. Children too are dressed up in their finest clothing created by family members.
In the late 1990s, the more popular competition categories include outfits adapted from nineteenth or turn-of-the-twentieth century styles. Seminole and Miccosukee artisans are very aware of books and articles written about their people and their dress. They have seen museum collections of clothing, portraits or archival photographs, written accounts of styles from other periods, and are reappropriating them. Women are readapting the styles in new ways. Some of the men are making an earnest attempt to replicate earlier clothing including that worn by leaders and warriors during the wars. Also, more realistic designs that represent clans such as panther and bird have recently been created.
Seminole and Miccosukee gaming is growing from barn-like bingo halls to glittery big time casino establishments with cocktail lounges and restaurants, although there are limitations on the kinds of games allowed. The Seminole Tribe has gaming halls on several reservations and owns a hotel next to the bingo hall on the Tampa reservation. The Miccosukee Tribe is bringing in big name entertainers, staging boxing events, a la Las Vegas, and opening a large resort hotel on Tamiami Trail in 1999. Both tribes are making considerable amounts of money from these enterprises, which is funneled back to their people to improve their way of life with better housing, health facilities, and educational opportunities for their children.
Far from a vanishing people, the Seminoles and Miccosukees are making a mark as they face the millennium. Though their culture was greatly impacted by the arrival of Europeans and introduction of trade goods, these resilient people have responded and survived through their talent for change, adaptation, and innovation. Language, clans, an oral storytelling tradition, religion, and art are the ties that continue to bind the people together.
To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the tribe, the Seminoles took a full-page advertisement in The Miami Herald on July 16, 1997, citing some of their recent accomplishments. Ecotourism, tourism, new museums, ranching, and agriculture are tribal enterprises that are expanding. The Seminole advertisement proudly announced, "Culturally, environmentally and economically, the Seminole Tribe of Florida touches the lives of all who call Florida 'home.'"
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Florida's Seminole and Miccosukee Indians:
Trade, Change, Adaptation and Innovation
A.. "We Are Not From Here"
1. Seminole and Miccosukee Indian origin myths
2. Arrival of Spanish: First Floridians annihilated by 1710
3. Creek Indians of Georgia and Alabama
4. Arrival of European colonists and traders
5. Impact of trade goods on changes in Indian way of life
6. Creek dress at time of contact: fur robes, shells, feathers and body decoration
7. Creek Indians move into Florida
8. Creek Indians become "Seminoles"
B. Nineteenth Century: Wars Against Removal and Aftermath
1. Andrew Jackson's policy of removal of all Indians from Southeast
2. Jackson and Creek War Against Upper Creeks in Alabama, 1814
3. First Seminole War: 1817-1818
4. Second Seminole War and Osceola: 1835-42
5. Third Seminole War and Billy Bowlegs: 1855-58
6. Indian pride in dress at negotiations
7. Isolation in wilderness of South Florida: 1858-1880
8. Adaptation to South Florida environment 1880-1900
9. Traders and the introduction of sewing machine
C. Twentieth Century Seminole and Miccosukee Indians and Innovation
1. Experimentation in clothing styles
2. Lacey Law passed forbidding sale of exotic bird plumes
3. Introduction of Tourism; Invention of patchwork designs ca. 1917
4. Completion of Tamiami Trail and impact on Miccosukees in Everglades: 1928
5. Land set aside for Hollywood, Big Cypress, and Brighton Reservations
6. Development of Florida Indian Arts and Crafts: 1930s and 40s with arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Boehmer and Deaconess Harriet M. Bedell
a. Crafts to sell: baskets, dolls, and wooden toys
b. Evolution of patchwork designs and changes in clothing styles
D. Seminole and Miccosukee Tribal Recognition and the Future
1. Incorporation of Seminole Tribe: 1957
2. Incorporation of Miccosukee Tribe: 1962
3. Miccosukee Art Festival
4. Seminole Tribal Fair and Pow-wow
5. Seminole and Miccosukee Bingo, Gaming, and other enterprises
6. Growing economy and pride for the Twenty-first Century.