The Nation -
The Seminole tribe is the product of an ethno-cultural blending of the Creek peoples from the lower-central Southeast with indigenous Floridian tribes such as the Choctaw, Timuquan and Apalachicolas, some of whom were part of the Muschogean culture. The meaning of the word “Seminole” has been interpreted, loosely, as “runaway” or “broken off” (McReynolds 1957, 12). This refers to the separation of the Lower Creek peoples from the larger tribe, as described by an 18th-century observer. “Runaway,” reported historian Wiley Thompson, was “applicable to all the Indians in the Territory of Florida as all of them ran awayfrom the Creek” (McReynolds 1957, 12). Runaway African-American slaves added to this conglomeration of native peoples, making the Seminoles a truly renegade people in every sense. The Seminoles saw themselves as having waged a long struggle for freedom. “The Indians who constituted the nucleus of (the) Florida group thought of themselves as yat;siminoli or ‘free people’” (Seminole Tribe of Florida, 2013).
The Seminoles spread throughout Florida during the second half of the 18th century. A diverse group, they brought with them a broad range of skills and means of subsistence, including farming, hunting, fishing and a form of animal husbandry. From their North Florida homeland, the tribe expanded south, establishing settlements as far as the Everglades by 1800 (Grunwald 2006, 30). North Florida became a kind of paradise to the Seminoles,
a place of abundance and great natural beauty. “Here our navel strings were first cut, and the blood from them sunk into the earth, and made the country dear to us,” (Grunwald 2006, 30). However, the conflict between Florida’s European conquerors would eventually turn North Florida into inhospitable territory.
The victory of the United States over Great Britain in 1783 returned Florida to Spanish rule, though only briefly. Florida had been just one of many of the conquistadors’ many domains in America, and the native peoples there, particularly the Seminoles, had co-existed more or less successfully with the Europeans. However, the Adams-Onis treaty of 1819, in which Spain turned Florida over to the new American republic, was a harbinger of trouble to come for the Seminole people. It created a contentious situation in which increasing numbers of American settlers, particularly plantation owners, pushed hard for possession of Seminole lands. Black Seminoles, runaway slaves who had become integrated with the tribe, were a particular source of friction. “For white settlers who already coveted Indian land, the threat of a savage tribe becoming a magnet for escaped slaves was an excellent excuse for an invasion” (Grunwald 2006, 31).
Thus, the position of the American government became increasingly militant. The Treaty of 1832 offered the Seminoles the option of removing west of the Mississippi or staying in Florida. Those that remained waged war against a vastly superior American force, led by Andrew Jackson, in the Second Seminole War. Guerilla warfare proved effective for the Seminoles for many years. However, the war ended in 1842 and most of the Seminoles were forced to relocate far to the west, while some retreated to the remotest regions of South Florida.
This geographic divide remains the defining fact of life among the Seminoles, who today are comprised of tribes in Oklahoma and Florida.
Culture and Tradition -
The Seminoles’ ancient cultural roots in the Creek tradition have remained the defining factor in the tribe’s identity. Many of the spiritual observances, such as the Green Corn Dance, have been handed down from ancient Creek belief systems, which include the ritual smoking of tobacco. The Green Corn Dance is the Creek and Seminole celebration of New Year, a time for forgiveness, fasting and renewal. It is also a time for settling unresolved problems within the tribe. “All tribal matters are heard and adjusted during the Green Corn Festival. Judicial powers within the reservation are in the hands of a council of medicine men, which decrees penalties for violations of its rules. Banishmentis considered the worst form of punishment” (FWA-WPA 1946, 46). Ultimately, the festival confers a spiritual cleansing and revitalization.
The Creek tradition is also present in the Seminoles’ spoken languages. Historically, the Seminoles of Florida have always spoken Creek and Mikasuki, both of which belong to the Muschogean family of native languages (Sturtevant and Cattelino 2004, 429). Interestingly, these two Muschogean languages are not mutually intelligible: “Mikasuki is perhaps as different from Creek as the English language differs from the related German language” (Sturtevant and Cattelino 2004, 429). Though English predominates today, many Seminoles in Florida and Oklahoma continue to speak Creek of Mikasuki. Socio-political divisions among the Seminoles tended to fall within one of three basic arrangements: matrilocal extended families, exogamous matrilineal clans, “and the group associated with each medicine bundle at the core of the busk or Green Corn Dance” (Sturtevant and Cattelino 2004, 438). Tribal camps were peopled by a
matrilocal family, in which women, children and unmarried men were all part of a single, unified clan (Sturtevant and Cattelino 2004, 438).
The Seminole peoples belong to a hierarchy of clans named for and associated with different animals and elements. These clan animals are part of a creation mythology originating in the Creek homeland in southern Alabama and Georgia, where the animal ancestors were said to have emerged from a holy mountain. “The Panther tried to come out first, but its head was blocked by a root across the hole. Wind then came out, spinning to enlarge the hole. Panther followed, and then in this order Wildcat, Bear, Wolf, Deer, and Bird. After this, Otter was found elsewhereBig Towns joined later” (Sturtevant and Cattelino 2004, 442). There was a delineation made between the four-legged and two- or no-legged clan ancestors in terms of characteristics, and members of the individual clans were said to share those characteristics with their clan totems (Sturdevant and Cattelino 2004, 442).
Perhaps the single-most influential figure in Seminole history is Osceola, the highly successful war leader who led the Seminoles in their guerilla campaign against the United States government. Osceola was Creek but his mother was part Scots-Irish, and it is believed his father was English. He became a symbol of Seminole resistance, and the image of Osceola driving his dagger through a copy of the Treaty of Payne’s Landing in 1832, the agreement that ceded Florida to the U.S. in exchange for lands west of the Mississippi. As husband to an escaped slave, Osceola was passionately opposed to slavery, a condition he believed the American government held in store for the Seminole nation. His rejection of the 1832 treaty was a kind of declaration of independence, and has cemented his legend among the Seminole tribes down to
the present day. Osceola’s defiance of the American government ended in 1838 with his capture, imprisonment and death.
Historical Analysis -
Osceola’s demise came about as the result of American treachery. Unable to defeat him in battle, government officials enticed Osceola to come to Ft. Moultrie in South Carolina to sign a peace treaty, but he was captured and imprisoned at St. Augustine, Florida. Osceola was not only popular among his native Seminoles but had captured the imagination of the American populace, much as Geronimo would decades later. Consequently, Osceola’s capture by deceit aroused public indignation – it also helped set the tone for relations between the Seminoles and the U.S. government, whose only concern was to seize Seminole lands for settlement by Americans. In many ways, the Seminoles’ success at defying the will of the government during the Second Seminole War worked against the tribe in the long run. It made them an early target of American expansionism, a barbarian obstacle to the fulfillment of the United States’ destiny in North America.
The focal point of America’s ruthless aggression against native Americans was Andrew Jackson, a man who served as military governor in Florida before ascending to the presidency. Jackson needed no coercing to remove the Seminoles from what he considered land pre-ordained for American settlers, and he did not allow the legal niceties of treaties to stop him. “As long as Andrew Jackson was president, the United States could be depended upon to place property rights of voters ahead of treaty rights of American Indians” (McReynolds 1957, 179). If Osceola is the symbol of Seminole defiance and independence, Andrew Jackson is the embodiment of Seminole oppression, the usurper determined to disenfranchise an entire people. Jackson was
part of a generation of Southern politicians for whom native Americans were little more than mindless savages. Florida legislators passed a law making it illegal for Seminoles to leave
reserved areas, the violation of which was punishable by 39 lashes (Grunwald 2006, 34). The outcry of Seminole leaders would be echoed in years to come by countless Indian chiefs in the Western territories, but as long as the Seminoles lived on lands within U.S. territory, there would be no change in the government’s policy toward them. By the early 1800s, “There were only 4,000 Seminoles in Florida, but that was 4,000 too many for Florida’s settlers” (Grunwald 2006, 34).
And yet relatively little progress had been made through force. In 1842, military operations against the Seminoles were officially ended by President John Tyler. The government had expended more than $20 million, and 1,500 soldiers had been killed, but the Seminoles had not been forced into submission (Mahon 1996, 203). In the 19th century, the U.S. government gave 5,000 acres to the Seminoles of Florida in hopes that they would accept life on the reservation. The spirit of resistance from the early 1800s remained, and at first the majority of Seminoles refused life on the reservation. However, the work of Creek Christian missionaries gradually convinced many to accept life on government-provided lands (Mahon 1996, 203). Thus, the Christian faith came to influence the Seminoles in ways that American military power could not.
Ultimately, the fate of the Seminoles would be different from most other native American tribes, once-free peoples whose identities and cultural traditions were wiped away by the genocidal policies of the U.S. government. The fact that the Seminoles can boast to have never been conquered was a key factor in their claims to sovereignty, and in 1957 the U.S. government
officially recognized the Seminole tribe of Florida. Twelve years later, the U.S. also recognized the Seminole nation of Oklahoma.
Modern Tribal Nation -
Today, the Seminole tribes function as sovereign entities within the geographical boundaries of the United States. The Seminole Tribe of Florida was formed in 1957 and a constitution passed. It established a two-tiered form of government, comprised of a Tribal Council and a Board of Directors (Seminole Tribe of Florida, 2013). The Tribal Council is the primary governing body, led by a chairman, vice-chairman and council representatives from each reservation (Seminole Tribe of Florida, 2013). From an administrative standpoint, the Tribal Council is responsible for managing a police department, human resources division, tribal gaming, citrus groves and the tribe’s various commercial ventures. The tribe also has its own legal defense department, as well as utilities (Seminole Tribe of Florida, 2013). Criminal prosecution and other such matters remain in the hands of the Florida and U.S. governments.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida is also a federal corporation, with a board of directors charged with guiding the organization toward financial success. The corporate charter addresses both the tribe’s sovereign status and its fiscal goals. The board’s aim is to “further the economic development of the Seminole Tribe of Florida by conferring upon said Tribe certain corporate rights, powers, privileges and immunity; to secure for the members of the Tribe an assured economic independence” (Seminole Tribe of Florida, 2013). The board has adopted an aggressive stance toward development, having created a number of innovative ventures that proved quite profitable. These include campgrounds, gift shops, credit and finance operations,
citrus groves, arts and crafts shops, cigarette wholesalers and smoke shops (Seminole Tribe of Florida, 2013).
One of the tribe’s most profitable ventures has been the casino business, as has been the case with native American tribes in many parts of the U.S. In 2012, the Seminole Tribe of Florida failed in its bid to obtain several domain names associated with the Web-based component of that business. The tribe was denied ownership of the domain names “casinoseminole.com,” “seminolecasino.com,” and “seminolegaming.com,” given that there are no common law trademark rights associated with the idea of concept of a “Seminole Casino, a potentially significant development given the prevalence of casinos specifically associated with tribal names in many parts of the country (World Trademark Review, 2012). This case raised controversy concerning the primacy of native American rights concerning the casino gaming industry. There are also potential legal complications, considering that the Seminole Tribe of Florida constitutes a sovereign entity.
The tribe is also involved in preserving its culture and heritage. The Tribal Heritage Preservation Office is divided into several sections, covering archaeology, architecture, archaeometry, cultural advisory issues, compliance and collections. The efforts of these staffs, and of the historic preservation professionals with whom they work, are on display at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress reservation. The museum houses Seminole art, crafts, archaeological finds and other aspects of Seminole history amid the natural beauty of the Everglades. The Seminole museum is one of the finest examples of tribal cultural and archaeological treasures in the United States, and reflects the tribe’s deep commitment to keeping its heritage alive.
Florida, 1946. Works Project Administrator – Federal Writers Project, U.S. History Publishers.
Grunwald, Michael, 2007. The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise.
New York: Simon and Schuster.
Mahon, John K. and Weisman, Brent R. “Florida’s Seminole and Miccosukee Peoples.” M.
Gannon, (Ed.). The New History of Florida, Univ. Press of Florida, 1996.
McReynolds, E.C. ,1957. The Seminoles. Norman, OK: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.
“Seminole Tribe Fails to Obtain Virtual Land.” World Trademark Review Daily, 8 October
2012. Accessed 29 March 2013 at http://www.hoganlovells.com/files/Publication/.
Seminole Tribe of Florida, 2013. Accessed 29 March 2013 at http://
Sturtevant, William C. and Cattelino, Jessica R., 2004. “Florida Seminole and Miccosukee.”
Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 14. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute.