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Florida Seminole history explored at annual Tallahassee celebration

The Henry family, led by medicine man Bobby Henry, leads an inter-tribal Stomp Dance around a bonfire Dec. 13 during the annual Winter Solstice Celebration. Seminole Tribe members and historians gathered in Tallahassee to correct inaccuracies about Seminole history.
The Henry family, led by medicine man Bobby Henry, leads an inter-tribal Stomp Dance around a bonfire Dec. 13 during the annual Winter Solstice Celebration. Seminole Tribe members and historians gathered in Tallahassee to correct inaccuracies about Seminole history.

TALLAHASSEE — Seminole Tribe members and historians gathered at the Florida capital Dec. 12-13 to defend the aboriginal ancestry of today’s Seminole Indians during the annual Winter Solstice Celebration.

Hosted by the Florida Department of State, the celebration was held at the Mission San Luis de Apalachee, a restored 1633 Spanish Franciscan mission built in an Apalachee Native area 2 miles west of the Capitol building.

Seminole Tribe members Marty Bowers and Bobby Henry, author Dr. Patricia Riles Wickman and Florida State University history professor Dr. Andrew Frank presented on Seminole history at the invitation of Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner.

Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Director Paul Backhouse moderated the three-hour panel, which was followed by a dinner for all participants and a special inter-tribal Stomp Dance led by Seminole medicine man Henry.

“Misinformation regarding the Seminoles’ equity in the state comes up all the time. Many people have believed the wrong history for so long; they can’t seem to embrace the truth,” Backhouse said. “That’s why we decided to put on this event.”

After errors related to Seminole ancestry appeared in a National Public Radio (NPR) story several months ago were traced back to incorrect information provided by the Department of State, which also had conflicting information on its website, Detzner offered a primetime slot on the Winter Solstice agenda to explore the equity issue. NPR’s ombudsman also published an examination of the story, pointing out the failure of the reporter to reach anyone with the Seminole Tribe.

“Chairman (James E.) Billie did not want to call names or get anyone in trouble. He preferred for something good to come out of the NPR story,” Backhouse said. “I think this has been very positive.”

The Winter Solstice Celebration drew several hundred independent Native Americans, who joined members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Miccosukee Indians of Florida and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians for the festival of Southeastern Indian culture. Other attendees included members of the Muscogee Nation, Choctawhatchee Creek Indian Nation, the Lower Muskogee Creek Tribe of Georgia and the Santa Rosa County Creek Tribe.

Tourists and Leon County locals of all ages joined the celebration of music, fine crafts and stomp dancing. Also on the agenda were stickball, drum circles and gazing at the pre-solstice sun, stars and planets with the Mission’s powerful telescopes to observe the occasion of the “sun standing” at its southernmost position.

Opening the discussion was Wickman, who began the first Seminole Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) and is credited with developing the theory and providing evidence that today’s Seminole and Miccosukee Indians are the direct descendants of Florida’s aboriginal people.

Wickman revealed how, in reading a book on President Andrew Jackson by historian Robert Remini, her theme was born: “He said that by the end of the first quarter of the 19th century, all of the Indians of the Southeast were either transported to the West or buried under the ground.”

Wickman said as a result of the book’s statement, she questioned the legitimacy of “every other thing that I have ever read about these people.”

Wickman described reading and re-reading every book, document and article she could find about the Florida Indians, many in foreign languages: “What I had finally concluded is that the image that we had conjured in our history books today of the Seminoles and the Miccosukees of Florida – who aren’t really all one people, if anybody wants to hear that or not – that the image we have conjured of them is not supported by the documents.”

“If you read English documents, you would believe that the first Seminole Indian, or the first person the English wanted to call a Seminole, dropped in by parachute in 1765,” Wickman said. “You would not look back into the Spanish documents. You would not look beyond the English documents. You would not look at the area of the Southeast, only part of which today is known as Florida. You would not see what an incredible heritage these Seminole people have.”

Frank described political and financial reasons for the equity deception. He promised to explain “how Americans, white Americans and Creek Indians, for that matter, in Georgia, defined the Indians of Florida as ‘Seminoles.’”

“They placed various unconnected bands and groups, some of which spoke different languages, had very little to do with each other, lived miles apart from each other and didn’t know each other existed, and defined them all as a coherent nation, a centralized group, a coherent set of leaders in order to wage war on them and force them to sign treaties,” Frank said. “They defined them as ‘runaways’ rather than sovereign. They defined them as former Creeks rather than as folks with policies of their own.”

Frank said it was not uncommon for early 20th century Seminoles to “poetically” translate the Muscogee phrase isti semoli as “those who camp at a distance” or “free people at distant fires.”

“Representatives of the United States, and then anthropologists after that, offered a rather different explanation … that is runaways, fugitives and wild people, the horse that is a runaway horse that is out of control,” Frank said. “One can see that as a disparaging trait, and one can see that as a free horse. The Creeks came up with the definition of ‘wild,’ as ‘renegade,’ as ‘fugitive’ for very particular reasons.

“Since then many have followed suit with the conventional wisdom that the terms originally began, as (Wickman) just mentioned, as cimmaron, the Spanish term for “runaway” or “runaway cow or domesticated animal.” The early American definition remains largely uncontested today. The two often continue to describe the Seminole people themselves. Not only do we use the term, but we still imagine (Seminoles) to be runaways rather than sovereign.

“Not surprisingly, the Seminoles in the 18th and early 19th century did not consider themselves to be runaways, wild men or fugitives from justice.”

The three Seminole Wars resulted in the death and removal of all but a few hundred Native peoples from Florida. “As part of this process of conquest,” Frank pointed out, “the United States created and imposed a definition of Seminoles that was widely rejected by Native peoples themselves. This definition declared that the Seminoles were wild savages who escaped Creek laws, intermixed with African-Americans and ultimately formed an illegitimate nation of their own.”

Frank said the definition defied reality but that it allowed the U.S. to treat the Florida Indians as if they belonged or remained connected to other Indian communities.

In its zeal to destroy the Seminoles, the U.S. government played dirty, Frank said.

“U.S. officials employed rhetorical devices that united their enemies in Florida to an ‘inflammatory wild and savage’ Seminole character. Typical of the American accounts, one explanation of the first war proclaimed that the Indian enemy ‘combated with the unrestrained fierceness of barbarians.’ They had ‘the character of wild beasts fit only to be hunted down and exterminated.’”

By the 1840s, representatives of the United States routinely justified the conquest of the Indians because “it would relieve the citizens of Florida of a savage population from which they have suffered so much in the form of rapine, conflagration and murder,” Frank said. “The United States had no need to distinguish one enemy from another. They were at war in their eyes and in their words, ‘with an enemy united simply by savagery.’ It’s a simple solution to a much more complicated issue.”

Marty Bowers’ intimate portrait of growing up on the Big Cypress Reservation enchanted the crowd. He told attendees how he was afraid of soldiers after hearing stories of how they hunted, captured and killed his ancestors 100 years before he was born.

“In growing up, that sentiment of removal, extermination, that fear, it was prevalent in my childhood,” Bowers said. “We were told stories of caution that were born out of those war years with the United States government. It was sometimes difficult to be a kid.”

Henry also shared his own stories.

The medicine man spun tale after tale: He was 8 to 10 years old when he began his medicine training. He explained how he was taken in the woods and turned loose, given only a sharp stick and told to “get you somethin’ and come back.”

Henry said he learned only to keep medicine ways, never to go to school.

“I don’t remember if I promised, but I never went to school. All my life,” he said.

At dark, after a dinner for all participants, the medicine man set a fire outside and called for dancers to join him. The Tallahassee temperature finally dropped beneath 80. Dozens of men and women dressed in all manner of Indian-styled garb followed Henry stomp dancing around the fire as he called out melodic words, dancing until he was the last man standing.

It was the end of the dance. People silently disappeared into the darkness.

“Where is everybody?” Henry said. “Where are the runaways?”

 

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