History of Seminole Indians
Seminoles are Indian tribe currently living in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Seminole Indians developed from the Creek Confederation of tribes in early 18th century and settled in Florida, at that time occupied by Spanish settlers. The tribe was joined by a number of other refugee Native Americans and black slaves. In Florida, Seminoles neighbored with Indian tribes speaking Mikasuki language and subsequently blended into one Indian people, named “Seminoles” which means “runaways”. In 1763, Florida was captured by the British, who soon found themselves in conflict with local Indian tribes. One of the causes of the problem was the protection that Seminoles offered to black refugee slaves (Garbarino, 1989). The conflict gradually developed and led to First, Second and Third Seminole Wars. In the result of the First Seminole War, Florida was given to the United States. The Second Seminole War was by far one of the most severe and costly of all United-States-Indian wars. The major part of the Seminoles was forced to surrender, move to Oklahoma and settle in the west of the Creek reservation. The Third Seminole War wasn’t marked by significant bloodshed, but resulted in the USA forcing a large part of Indians to move to the western territories of Oklahoma and Arkansas. After the end of all these wars, only 300 representatives of Seminole tribe were left in Florida.
M. Garbarino and R. Sasso in their book “Native American Heritage” (1994) use culture areas approach in describing culture and lifestyle of this tribe and classify it as representatives of Eastern Woodland culture, along with Cherokee, Choktaw and Chikasaw, who have a number of common features concerning religion, tradition, culture, clothes, rituals, types of buildings and architecture and so on.
Culture, traditions and religious rites
Seminoles speak Muskogese, or Creek, language, though there are a part of Indians speaking related to Muskogean Hitchi language, and they are generally known as Hitchi-Mikasuki Seminoles. Historical Seminole culture is similar to that of the Creek tribes. Along with Creeks, Seminoles were the heirs of horticulture of Mississipi, which included planting of maze, cane, beans, tobacco, millet and sunflowers. They typically gathered wild fruits and nuts, haunted bison and deer, stored bear fat and nut oil. Their settlements were arranged in a form of a small town with surrounding villages, the towns had a square where religious rituals were performed and public gatherings were held. The majority of the tribes were divided into matrilineal totemic clans. Mostly, Seminoles lived in longhouses and wigwams, made of logs and poles, and sometimes palisade villages.
The main religious event of the Seminoles was a “busk”, or Green Corn Festival, which still survived in certain forms within Oklahoma Creek and Seminole Indians (Garbarino, Sasso, 1994).
The Green Corn Dance was the most important religious, social and political event of the Seminole culture. Actually, it is the heart of their culture and traditions. During four days every year, the whole tribe gathers to try serious ordeals, to initiate males into adulthood and to celebrate most important rites of Seminole religion in ceremonies, vigorously kept in secret from outsiders, and to pass the tales that bear the memory of the community and are the archives of this Indian tribe’s life. This religious observance marked the start of the new year. During this festival Indians put their old things on fire. Women took coals or flames of this fire and brought this fire of new year to their homes. The pique of the festival was the Black Drink, which cleaned all the drinkers similarly to the fire cleaning the houses of the Seminoles. By the end of this festival, people gathered, cooked and ate the first corn of the year. The tradition of Black Drink was shared by many people of Southeastern tribes. This emetic brewed from shrub, or Ilex cassine, usually caused vomiting. Therefore, people drank it with the aim of purifying themselves during the ceremonies or before religious or council meeting. On that day, people confessed their sins from the last Green Corn feast, such as grudges, unpaid debts and adultery. By the end of the celebration people painted their bodies with white clay which symbolized well being and peace, and afterwards bathed in a river. The goal of all this rituals was to start a new pure life and to sustain the Harmony Ethic.
Though some of the representatives of Seminole tribe were converted into Christianity and particularly baptism, the major part of the Indians preserve their Muskogean rituals, traditions and beliefs.
In 1990, descendants of Seminoles amounted for 13,797. This is the only native group which did not officially sign “peace treaty” with the American government. Seminoles still observe traditional cultural and religious practices, though there is growing concern among the tribe that the youngest generation tends to lose ground with the culture of their ancestors (Debo, 1996).
The Seminoles living in Florida (about 2000 people) have five reservations. They fish, farm, hunt, and some of them even go into tourist-related businesses. These Indians still live in open-sided thatch-roofed houses on stilts (so-called chickees) and wear applique clothing and patchwork. Opening of the first “smoke shop”, which offered tax free tobacco products, provided Seminoles with a stable enterprise which still continues bringing Indians substantial revenues. Another economic enterprise of Seminoles is gaming, started with opening of High-Stake Bingo Hall in Hollywood.
Today, the majority of Tribal members have modern health care and hosing conditions. The Seminole Tribe in Florida spends $1 million yearly of education, including grants for promising Indian students and the functioning of Ahfachkee Indian School.
Today, the priority issue of the Seminole tribe is the challenge of maintaining its unique culture while adapting to the modern economy. Descendants of Osceola, Jumper, Sam Jones and Micanopy have remained proud and unconquered community, a precious legacy of American diverse heritage and American Indian tribes leader in the strive for independence and self-reliance.
Merwyn S. Garbarino, Robert F. Sasso. Native American Heritage. Waveland Press; 3rd edition (April 1, 1994).
Garbarino, Merwyn S. The Seminoles. Indians of North America Series.
Frank W. Porter, Gen. ed. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.
Debo, Angie. The Road to Disappearance. Norman: University of
Oklahoma Press, 1941. Florida, 1996.