MIAMI — Louise Gopher, Destiny Nunez and Betty Osceola led a panel discussion entitled “Seminole and Miccosukee Women; Culture, Community, Family and Public Life” at Florida International University’s Global Indigenous Forum March 29 in Miami.
Students and professors listened as the women shared their perspectives on life. Gopher presented the history of the Seminole Tribe’s push for cultural education which led to the founding of Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School in Brighton. Nunez spoke about the importance for young people to learn Tribal traditions. Osceola, a Miccosukee Tribal citizen, stressed the significance of caring for the environment.
Professor Mary Lou Pfeiffer, senior instructor at FIU’s Honors College, opened the forum with the concept of seven generations in which each generation must consider how today’s decisions affect descendants seven generations in the future.
“There are 600 million indigenous people in the world,” Pfeiffer said. “The natural resources on earth are being depleted. This is where seven generation thinking comes in; do we want to deprive the future generations of those resources?”
Environmentalist Osceola took the discussion from the abstract to the reality of life in the Everglades.
“I just walked 80 miles across the Everglades and our walk was all about that,” said Osceola, who joined a group of demonstrators to raise awareness of the effort to protect and preserve the Everglades. “We have to speak out more and educate more to keep our natural world.”
As a volunteer, Osceola takes groups of Miccosukee youth to tree islands to plant corn and pumpkin the traditional way.
“We teach culture while we are planting,” she said. “Everything is interconnected; they interact with elders who pass along the tradition of living more simply. Nature has a right to exist, just like the rest of us. We only take what we need. It provides us abundance and that’s what we pass on to our children.”
Osceola believes Native Americans must speak for themselves. She went to Tallahassee during the recent legislative session to lobby against the proposed “citizen archaeologist” bill, which failed to become law. She said legislators were surprised to see Osceola and her group.
“Everyone else wanted to speak for us,” she said. “Every day I think what do I have to fight for tomorrow? They want to determine what’s important to me, but I’m not going to go into the church and tell the Pope what is important to him. That’s called respect and you need that to live how we’ve always lived.”
Gopher learned to respect education at a young age. Born in a chickee in a Fort Pierce orange grove, Gopher spoke no English until she was sent to public school. She eventually became the first Seminole woman to earn a bachelor’s degree. Education remains an important aspect of her life. Although she was bestowed with an honorary doctorate from Florida State University in 2014, she still remembers her earliest days as a student.
“I came home and played school with my mother to try to teach her,” she said. “Going to school was a culture shock. I had to eat things not familiar to me like okra and milk, but I liked the iced tea. Only teachers got to drink it so I thought I’d have to be a teacher when I grew up.”
After high school graduation, Gopher went to junior college, where she earned an associate’s degree, then transferred to the University of Florida and later graduated from Florida Atlantic University.
“College wasn’t hard for me. I knew how to study,” said the Brighton resident.
Gopher spent about 10 years working at the Florida School for Boys, a reform school in Okeechobee. Around that time, she said the Tribe realized their children knew nothing about Seminole history, culture or language. A cultural education program was started and Gopher was tapped to be its coordinator.
“They gave me the job, said here’s the problem, now go fix it,” she said. “We had a whole generation of kids who only knew English. The nice houses broke up the extended families and our way of life that enabled us to pass on our customs and language.”
The challenge led Gopher to create a program for Tribal students in area schools. She approached the Okeechobee County superintendent of schools with a proposal to allow students to stay in Brighton one day a week to learn Seminole history, culture and language. It was approved, so Gopher went to work building a curriculum and getting teachers on board. The pull-out program for kindergarten through fifth grade students was like any other academic program; attendance was taken and grades were given.
“The kids loved it,” she said. “Self-esteem went up and the regular teachers noticed they were more engaged in class.”
The program grew from 40 to about 100 students over five or six years, which prompted the Tribe to provide a trailer for the classes. Eventually, parents wanted more than one day a week, so Gopher began to work on transitioning the program into a charter school with a focus on culture and language.
The principal hired top teachers, obtained the best technology and put a teacher and an aide in each classroom. PECS opened in September 2007. Today 300 K-8 students attend the school.
In addition to the culture program, PECS offers a regular education curriculum identical to any public school and a sports program for teams to compete against area schools. It recently began a language immersion program for infants and toddlers.
“It’s sad that we have to go into a school setting to teach language and culture, but I’m glad to see young adults working in the program,” Gopher said.
Culture is at the core of what Miss Florida Seminole Destiny Nunez holds dear. An education major at the University of Central Florida, she explained the history and meaning of the Princess Pageant, shared her experiences appearing at events. She also announced her plan to compete for the Miss Indian World title at the Gathering of Nations.
“As Miss Seminole, you are an ambassador of the Tribe,” said Nunez. “All the women who have had this title are leaders in the Tribe. I strive to be a leader, too.”
Nunez realizes children are the future of the Tribe and plans to become a kindergarten teacher. Prior to becoming Miss Seminole, she wasn’t comfortable speaking in public, but her experience has given her the confidence to do it well. She believes some stories need to be told – instead of written – to be passed down across the generations. Her talent portion for the Miss Indian World competition will be traditional storytelling.
“I may not be the best speaker, but I speak to young people about our history, culture and who we are. My job is to be a role model and empower all children and Tribal members and to inspire them to be better people,” Nunez said.
Before the forum ended, Gopher mentioned other influential Seminole women, including Laura Mae Osceola, the Tribe’s first secretary and treasurer; Betty Mae Jumper, the first female chairman of the Tribe; and Polly Parker, who escaped extradition to Oklahoma and whose descendants includes many Tribal leaders. She also mentioned that many other women who sacrificed much during the Seminole Wars go unnamed and unsung.
“When they were hiding from the troops, if their babies cried they had to suffocate them,” Gopher said. “They were willing to sacrifice one to save the group. Because of that, we have all this.”
After the formal presentations, the women answered questions from the audience. One student wanted to know how she could learn all there was to know about the Tribe.
“We are very protective of ourselves,” Gopher said. “Now we go out and educate people, but we keep our legends private and sacred.”
One student asked Nunez what she would wish for if she had a magic wand.
“For our culture to be stronger with the younger generations,” she said. “Our people need it.”