Seminole (Native Americans of the Southeast)

Seminole means "pioneer," or "runaway," possibly from the Spanish cimarron, "wild." The Seminoles, known as such by 1775, formed in the eighteenth century from members of other Indian peoples, mainly Creeks, but also Oconee, Yamasee, and others. Their traditional culture was similar to that of the Creeks. The Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Cherokee, and Seminole were known by non-natives in the nineteenth century as the Five Civilized Tribes.

Until 1962, the Miccosukee Indians were part of the Seminoles. According to their traditions, they were descended from Chiaha Indians. The name Miccosukee means "Red Person."

Location Located in north Florida in the early eighteenth century, the Seminole and Miccosukee were forced southward into the swamps, and west to Oklahoma, from the mid-nineteenth century on.

Population From a population of perhaps 1,500 in 1800, the tribe grew to about 5,000 in 1821. Roughly 400 Miccosukees and 2,000 Florida Seminoles were enrolled in the early 1990s. There were also roughly 10,500 Oklahoma Seminoles in 1991.

Language Seminoles spoke two mutually unintelligible Muskogean languages: Hitchiti, spoken by Oconee Indians and today mostly by Miccosukees, and Muskogee.

Historical Information

History Apalachee and Timucua Indians were the original inhabitants of north Florida. By about 1700, most had been killed by disease and raids by more northerly tribes. Non-Muskogee Oconee Indians from south Georgia, who moved south during the early eighteenth century, formed the kernel of the Seminole people. They were joined by Yamasee refugees from the Carolina Yamasee war, 1715-1716, as well as by some Apalachicola, Calusa, Hitchiti, and Chiaha Indians, and escaped slaves. The Chiaha were known by the late eighteenth century as Miccosukee. Several small Muskogean groups joined the nascent Seminoles in the late eighteenth century.

Seminoles considered themselves Creek; they supported Creeks in war and often attended their councils. They experienced considerable population growth after the 1814 Creek war, mainly from Muskogeans from Upper Creek towns. From this time on the dominant language among the Seminoles was Muskogee, or Creek. However, Seminole settlements, mainly between the Apalachicola and the Suwannee Rivers, were too scattered to permit the reestablishment of Creek towns and clan structures.

Prior to the Civil War some Seminoles owned slaves, but the slaves’ obligations were minimal, and Seminoles welcomed escaped slaves into their communities. Until 1821, U.S. slaves might flee across an international boundary to Florida. Even after that year, the region remained a haven for escaped slaves because of the presence of free African American and mixed African American and Seminole communities.

Seminoles first organized to fight the United States in 1817-1818. The conflict was begun by state militias chasing runaway slaves and resulted in the Spanish cession of Florida. Southern whites feared the possibility of an African American-Indian military alliance, and they were aware of the numbers of escaped slaves living in the area. Despite the best U.S. efforts, which included burning villages and other such tactics, the Seminole did not fall.

In the Treaty of Moultrie Creek (1823), the Seminole traded their north Florida land for a reservation in central Florida. The 1832 Treaty of Payne’s Landing, which was signed by unrepresentative chiefs and was not supported by most Seminoles, called for the tribe to relocate west to Indian Territory. By 1838, up to 1,500 Seminoles had been rounded up and penned in concentration camps.

These people were forcibly marched west, during which time as many as 1,000 died from disease, starvation, fatigue, heartbreak, and attacks from whites. Although under pressure to do so, the Seminole consistently refused to give up the considerable number of African Americans among them. In 1856, the western Seminole were given a strip of land of about two million acres west of the Creeks.

Resistance to relocation and to white slave-capturing raids led to the second Seminole war of 1835-1842. Under Osceola, Jumper, and other leaders, the Seminole waged a guerrilla war against the United States, retreating deep into the southern swamps. Although Osceola was captured (at a peace conference) and soon died in captivity, and although at war’s end most Seminoles, about 4,500 people, were forced into Indian Territory, the Seminole were not militarily defeated. The war ended because the United States decided not to spend more than the $30 million it had already spent or to lose more than the 1,500 soldiers that had already been killed.

In the Second Seminole War of 1835-1842, the Seminoles, under Chief Osceola (pictured here in a painting by George Catlin), waged a guerrilla war against the U.S. government. Although Osceola was captured and died in captivity, and although at the war's end most Seminoles were forced into Indian Territory, the Seminole were not militarily defeated.

In the Second Seminole War of 1835-1842, the Seminoles, under Chief Osceola (pictured here in a painting by George Catlin), waged a guerrilla war against the U.S. government. Although Osceola was captured and died in captivity, and although at the war’s end most Seminoles were forced into Indian Territory, the Seminole were not militarily defeated.

Most of the several hundred remaining Seminoles were either Cow Creek Indians (Muskogees) or Big Cypress Indians (Miccosukees).

A third Seminole war took place from 1855 to 1858. From their redoubt in the Everglades, the Indians attacked non-native surveyors and settlers. The army, through its own attacks and by bringing in some Oklahoma Seminoles, succeeded in persuading another 100 or so Seminoles to relocate, but about 300 remained, undefeated, in Florida. There was never a formal peace treaty.

In the 1870s, as the first non-natives began moving south of Lake Okeechobee, there was another call for Seminole removal, but the government decided against an attempt. In the late nineteenth century, a great demand for Seminole trade items led to close relationships being formed between Florida Indians and non-native traders.

Western Seminoles settled in present-day Seminole County, Oklahoma, in 1866. By the 1890s the people had formed 14 bands, including two composed of freedmen, or Black Seminoles. Each band was self-governing and had representation on the tribal council. Most of the western Seminole reservation, almost 350,000 acres, was allotted in the early twentieth century. Through fraud and other questionable and illegal means, non-natives by 1920 had acquired about 80 percent of the land originally deeded to Indians. Tribal governments were unilaterally dissolved when Oklahoma became a state in 1907. An oil field opened on Seminole land in 1923, but few Indians benefited. Many Oklahoma Seminoles moved away from the community during and after World War II in search of jobs.

Indian Baptists from Oklahoma achieved the first large-scale successes in Christianizing Florida Seminoles in the early twentieth century. Most Florida Seminoles lived by subsistence hunting, trapping, and fishing, as well as by trading, until non-natives overhunted and out-trapped the region. Around the time of World War I, the subsistence economy disintegrated even further as Florida began to drain the swamps and promote agriculture. By the 1920s, the new land boom, in conjunction with the drainage projects, led to significant Indian impoverishment and displacement.

Most Seminoles relocated to reservations during the 1930s and 1940s. There they quickly acculturated, adopting cattle herding, wage labor, schools, and Christianity. With the help of Florida’s congressional delegation, the tribe avoided termination in the 1950s. At that time they adopted an Indian Reorganization Act-style corporate charter. Formal federal recognition came in 1957. By the 1950s, a group of more traditional Mikasuki-speaking Indians, mostly living deep in the Everglades, moved to separate themselves from the Seminole, whom they regarded as having largely renounced their Indian traditions. After a great deal of struggle, the Miccosukees were given official permission by the federal government to form their own government, the Miccosukee Tribe, which they did in 1962.

Religion The Seminoles considered themselves children of the sun. They observed the Green Corn ceremony as early as May or June. This ritual helped to unify the tribe after the wars. It began with the presentation of buckskin-wrapped medicine bundles, which contained items such as crystals, ginseng, horn, and white deer hair, all individually wrapped in buckskin. Medicine bundles were considered central to the identity of the people.

Seminoles believed that a person’s soul exited the body when he or she slept. Illness occurred when the soul failed to return, in which case a priest was called to coax the soul back.

Government Before the wars, Seminole towns had chiefs and councils of elders. Afterward, there were three bands, based on language (two Miccosukee and one Creek). Each had its own chief and council of elders.

Customs Matrilineal clans helped provide cultural continuity among widely scattered bands after the wars. There was also a dual division among the people. Particularly after 1817, the Seminole lived in small extended families. Oklahoma Seminoles retained more of traditional Creek social and religious structures, such as the talwas, or band/towns, than did the Florida people. Lacrosse and other Creek games played a similar social and ceremonial role. Snakes were not killed out of fear of their spirits. Bloodletting through scratching was thought to alleviate illness or troublesome behavior.

Dwellings Owing to a fairly mobile and decentralized existence, early towns were much less organized than were those of the Creeks. For example, there were no chunkey yards and only a vague public square. People living in these towns generally owned a longhouse, divided by mats into a kitchen, dining area, and sleeping area, and another, smaller house of two stories, similar to the Creek granary.

People in south Florida built their villages on hammocks and near rivers. Houses, or chickees, had pole foundations of palmetto trunks and palmetto-thatched roofs, platforms raised about three feet off the ground, and open walls. The thatch was watertight and could resist very strong winds. A small attic provided storage space. Cotton cloths were occasionally suspended around sleeping areas for privacy and insect protection. Utensils hung from the poles or from stakes driven in the ground. One cook hut sufficed for the village; fires burned in it continuously, and women cooked for everyone.

Diet Women grew corn, beans, squash, and also tobacco. They made hominy and flour from corn and "coontie" from certain roots. They also grew such non-native crops as sweet potatoes, bananas, peanuts, lemons, melons, and oranges. The fields often were on different hammocks, up to a day’s journey distant from their homes. They also gathered wild rice; cabbage palmetto; various roots and wild foods, such as persimmon, plum, honey, and sugarcane; and nuts, such as hickory and acorns.

Men hunted alligator, bear, opossum, rabbit, squirrel, wild fowl, manatee, and turkeys (using calls for the turkeys). The people ate fish, turtles, and shellfish. Turtles were often roasted alive over a fire. Favorite dishes included sofkee (corn soup) and boiled hominy with wood ash (for flavor). From the beginning they traded with non-natives for coffee and other items.

Key Technology Spears were used to kill fish and alligators. Baskets, such as winnowing baskets, were fashioned of palmetto and cane. Many items were made from the palmetto tree, such as house frames and platforms from the trunk and roof thatch and beds from the leaves. Arrows of cane and wood were tipped with iron, 4- to 6-foot bows were made from mulberry or other woods, and deer rawhide was used for bowstrings. Before matches, fire was kindled with flint and steel on a bit of gunpowder and tinder. The people also had drums, flutes, and rattles.

Trade Traditional trade items included alligator hides, otter pelts, bird plumes, and foods. Bird plumes and alligator hides in particular were very much in demand in the late nineteenth century. The people imported firearms, canned foods, clothing, cloth, and hand-operated sewing machines.

Notable Arts Seminoles were known for their patchwork clothing and baskets. Their geometric designs were often in the pattern of a snake. Ribbon applique, previously consisting mainly of bands of triangles along borders, became much more elaborate during the later nineteenth century.

Transportation Men built fire-hollowed cypress dugout canoes, often poled from a stern platform. Canoes were relatively flat to accommodate the shallow, still water of the swamps. Some had sails, for journeys on Lake Okeechobee and even to the Bahamas. Their horses may have been of Mexican origin. The Seminoles eventually developed their own breed.

Dress Women made patchwork clothing beginning around 1900. It consisted of colorful pieces of material sewed into strips that were in turn sewn into garments. Some clothing was made of tanned deerskin as well. Women wore short shirts and long skirts, both generally of cloth. In cool weather they added a cotton shawl. They also wore as many as 200 bead necklaces around the neck.

A Seminole family poses for a photographer. The women wear long skirts and many necklaces of beads and coins. The man wears a vest, a long shirt, and a tall turban fashionable among the nineteenth-century Seminole.

A Seminole family poses for a photographer. The women wear long skirts and many necklaces of beads and coins. The man wears a vest, a long shirt, and a tall turban fashionable among the nineteenth-century Seminole.

Men, especially among the Miccosukee, wore turbans made of wrapped shawls. Some had silver bands with bird feathers in them. Other clothing included shirts, neckerchiefs, breechclouts, and, occasionally, buckskin moccasins. Belts held up pockets containing hunting items and supported a long knife. Young children generally went naked, with older children wearing shirts (boys) and skirts (girls). Both sexes wore ornaments of silver and other metals and painted their faces and upper bodies.

War and Weapons There was no intertribal warfare: Seminoles fought only with the U.S. Army and local non-native settlers. Quartz crystals were thought to ward off bullets and to bring success in warfare, hunting, and other pursuits.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Seminole Tribe of Florida elects a tribal council with representation from all reservations. It also elects a board of directors to supervise business affairs.

Big Cypress Reservation (Seminole) is located in Broward and Hendry Counties, Florida. It consists of 42,700 acres. The 1990 Indian population was 447.

Brighton Reservation (Seminole) is located in Glades County, Florida. It consists of 35,805 acres. The 1990 Indian population was 402.

Hollywood (formerly Dania) Reservation (Seminole) is located in Broward County, Florida. It consists of 480 acres. The 1990 Indian population was 481.

Miccosukee Reservation (Miccosukee) is located in Broward and Dade Counties, Florida. It consists of 333 acres. The 1990 Indian population was 94. Leadership is elected but is traditionally dominated by certain families and clans.

The Florida State Reservation (Miccosukee and Seminole) is located in Broward County, Florida. It consists of 104,000 acres; there are no residents.

There is also a Seminole community in Tampa, Florida.

Most Oklahoma Seminoles live in Seminole County, Oklahoma. Tribal headquarters is located near Wewoka. Other tribal buildings are south of Seminole, Oklahoma. Roughly 35,000 acres remain in Seminole hands. A new 1970 constitution calls for an elected chief, an assistant chief, and a tribal council that represents all 14 bands.

Economy The large Florida reservations, Big Cypress and Brighton, are home to large cattle and farming (citrus) enterprises. Other important economic activities include tourism (sales of patchwork clothing, baskets, and other crafts), small business, and forestry. The Florida Seminole also have hunting and fishing rights on the Florida State Reservation.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc., oversees tribal business activity, such as tax-free cigarette sales and high-stakes bingo. These two activities provide the bulk of tribal income and fund various services as well as a per capita dividend. Miccosukee enterprises include a restaurant/service station, cultural center, and bingo hall and casino.

In Oklahoma, unemployment is chronically high. There are some jobs in the oil industry, retail, small business, and agriculture.

Legal Status The Seminole Tribe of Florida, including each of the four constituent reservations, and the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma are federally recognized tribal entities. The Oklewaha Band of Seminole Indians (Florida) has petitioned for federal recognition.

Daily Life Most Florida Seminoles continue to speak Mikasuki and Muskogee, or Creek, whereas most Miccosukees speak Mikasuki. The Miccosukees live in modern housing about 40 miles west of Miami or in suburban Miami. They offer classes, provide health and recreation services, and have their own police and court system. The tribe controls about 200,000 acres of wetlands. It also holds an annual arts festival. The people were relatively traditional as late as the 1950s, but today’s Miccosukees wonder if the allure of Miami and modern society will destroy the old ways forever. The severe pollution and reduction in area of the Everglades has significantly impacted the Miccosukees’ and Seminoles’ traditional life.

Seminole reservations feature recreation facilities and community centers. Almost all Seminoles live in modern housing. The Hollywood Reservation contains a re-created traditional village, and ceremonials are held there in mid-July. Most children attend public school; there is also a tribal elementary school at Big Cypress. Clan and kinship structures remain in place, although traditional knowledge is in danger of being lost.

After years of internal disputes regarding the allocation of a $16 million land claims victory in 1976, the Oklahoma Seminole decided on a compromise in 1990. Hitchiti is no longer spoken in Oklahoma, but many Oklahoma Seminoles speak Muskogee. Although most Oklahoma Seminoles are Christians, most also retain many traditional cultural and religious practices and, except for jobs and schools, remain apart from non-native life. There are three stomp grounds; these, plus several located among the Creek, serve as the focus of traditional religious activities, especially the Green Corn Dance. The clan structure has been severely weakened, although band descent remains matrilineal.

Next post:

Previous post: