CHOCTAW, Miss. — The Seminole Tribe lost one of its longtime greats on June 9 when Joe Dan Osceola passed away at 82.
Osceola was the Tribe’s first president 50 years ago, when he was just 32. That distinction also made him the youngest Tribal president on any council throughout all of Indian Country.
Those milestones were just the beginning of a long lasting and influential presence in the Tribe.
Osceola was also the first president of the United South & Eastern Tribes from 1969 to 1970. USET leadership recently took note of the significance of his life and legacy.
The organization honored Osceola with its “Earl J. Barbry Sr. Lifetime Achievement Award” Nov. 4 at its 50th annual meeting.
The meeting was hosted by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians at the tribe’s Pearl River Resort.
Seminole Tribal member Sally Tommie, who is a close family friend, nominated him for the recognition.
“That’s based on his work within the Tribe, within the community, as a family man, as a fellow Tribal member that has built homes and chickees for so many on ceremonial grounds and all the way from Key West to Tallahassee and all points in between and having a tremendous number of grandchildren that will one day continue to move on and do amazing things within our Tribe,” Tommie told the Tribal Council at its meeting on Oct. 18.
Several members of Osceola’s family made the trip to Choctaw to be a part of the USET honor.
Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr. and Hollywood Councilman Chris Osceola were also in attendance.
“The organization was near and dear to his heart,” Virginia Osceola, his wife of 35 years, said. “He would try to go to every meeting.”
USET leadership highlighted a quote during the ceremony that Osceola is known for, which was also mentioned by Chairman Osceola.
“If we don’t tell our true story, then somebody else will and it may not be our truth. Therefore, we must take that responsibility serious and be a part of the narrative,” the Osceola quote reads.
USET officials presented Virginia Osceola with a star quilt and plaque in her husband’s honor.
The plaque reads, in part: “For 50 years, USET has built upon and tried to emulate the strength and resolve of President Osceola in all we do. Without his guidance and leadership, who knows where we would be.”
Virginia Osceola said that when USET was in its infancy, two of the original four founding members were reluctant to join.
She said her husband brought eight arrows to a meeting and proceeded to pick up each of four arrows one at a time and snap them in half.
Then he held four arrows tightly together and showed how it was impossible to break the bunch in two.
“He [told them]: ‘We have to stick together,’” Osceola said. “The two [reluctant] members came onboard.”
A Seminole life
Osceola was a Seminole Tribal ambassador, both in official and unofficial capacities.
He traveled extensively to spread the word about Seminole culture and to also learn from other tribes.
“He would do anything that would promote the Tribe and all Native People,” Virginia Osceola said.
She said his travels took him not only across Indian Country, but also to international destinations like the rainforests of Peru, Brazil and Bolivia.
“He had a connection with people. People were just drawn to him. He’d visit the chiefs wherever he’d go,” Osceola said.
She said her husband was always in contact with Seminole leadership and showed respect for whoever was in in charge at the time.
In addition to being the Tribe’s first president, Osceola was vice chairman from 1967 to 1971 and pushed to change the way Indian Health Service funds were allocated – something he also did as president of USET.
He wanted to ensure IHS funds went directly to tribal nations without having to first go through state government.
Osceola was also instrumental in the expansion of the Tribe’s cattle program that first began in the 1930s.
He was a successful businessman and entrepreneur. He built chickees, owned a 24-hour smoke shop and sold arts and crafts on the site where the Guitar Hotel now sits in Hollywood.
The unassuming Osceola had a long list of perhaps unlikely friends.
“He’d say: ‘Honey I’ll be home at 5:30, but I’m bringing someone for dinner,’” Virginia Osceola recalled. “He’d show up with Rita Coolidge, Bo Diddley, Robin Leach. One of his best friends was [Mötley Crüe lead singer] Vince Neil.”
Osceola had 10 children, many grandchildren and more than a dozen great grandchildren.
His daughter, Courtney Osceola, said that what she remembers most about her father is how family came first.
She said her father often taught her the lessons of the past – including as it applied to health care.
“He’d say: ‘You know how hard we fought for this?’” she said, when he’d talk about the Betty Mae Jumper Medical Center being built on the Hollywood Reservation.
“He told me that sometimes a doctor would come once a week or once a month. They cut funding for IHS. He didn’t feel like that was right. It’s part of the reason he was the first IHS director,” Osceola said.
She said her father was keenly aware of how far the Seminole Tribe had come financially.
Virginia Osceola said when he took office in the 1960s, Betty Mae Jumper was the accountant and she’d told him the Tribe had $100 in the bank.
“He made sure the Tribe sustained during those rough years,” she said. “He told us you have to know where you came from and the struggle.”
Virginia and Courtney Osceola said they and their entire family have good memories of Osceola and are proud of all he did.
“He put family above everything and was so proud of his Tribe and people and the culture,” Courtney Osceola said. “He put a big emphasis on education.”
She said her father was one of the first Seminoles to graduate from an Indian boarding school; was one of three Seminoles to attend school in Okeechobee; and was the first to receive an athletic scholarship.
He played football, basketball and ran track in high school.
“He had keys to the city, knew governors, had letters from the Pope and Burt Reynolds was a close friend. He was well known everywhere,” Osceola said.
She said her father kept all his family memorabilia in the front of the house, and all his personal mementos hidden away in the back.
“He is his Tribe and he is his people,” Osceola said.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly implied that Joe Dan Osceola is a member of the Bird Clan. He is a member of the Panther Clan.