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National Folk Museum of Korea researches Seminole dolls

HOLLYWOOD — An honored Native American tradition is moving beyond the horizon of the U.S. On March 14, a team of researchers from the National Folk Museum of Korea visited the Hollywood Reservation to learn about the history and culture surrounding Seminole dolls.

Mable Osceola Doctor shows the researchers examples of Seminole dolls that she created. (Li Cohen)

The museum, based in Gyeongbokgung Palace in South Korea, usually houses artifacts from Korea. The team of researchers, including Lead Curator Moon Hee Koo, Assistant Curator Hyun Ah Lee and photographer Eun Jin Kim, however, decided to move their scope internationally and, since 2013, have been conducting research on the relationship between culture, materials and people. The first materials they researched were denim pants and salt, and in the future they plan to research kitchens. Now, however, they are looking to uncover the cultures surrounding doll artisans, doll collectors, doll makers, puppet theaters, toy stores and family doll heirlooms.

In an email to The Tribune, Koo explained that a doll is a common characteristic of peoples’ perceptions and differences between cultures. He and his team believe that keeping track of cultural dolls is a way to document societal issues and changes over time. Along with the Seminole Tribe, the team has also visited Japan, Czech Republic, Germany, India and France. They plan to visit Mexico and Los Angeles in the coming months.

During their visit to the Hollywood Reservation, the research team sat with Hollywood residents Mable Osceola Doctor and Stephanie Hall. From the perspective of two very different generations, Doctor and Hall shared how they started making dolls and the portrayal of their culture within their doll-making styles.
Doctor, who grew up living in a chickee in the Everglades, said she watched her mom make traditional Seminole dolls her entire life, but it wasn’t until she started working at the Hollywood culture department that she started making them regularly. She makes dolls more traditionally, with simple facial features and traditional hairstyles.

Hall, on the other hand, only recently learned how to make dolls from people in the culture department, along with the help of Doctor and her grandmother Minnie Doctor.

“It’s a real sense of pride of where I come from. … The women I’ve always known and who look like this [the dolls] are very strong, very beautiful. It’s keeping our traditions alive,” Hall said. “When people look at it, I want it to make them happy and to make them smile and to see the beauty in the Seminole woman.”
Although she learned how to make the dolls from elder women – by stretching and sewing palmetto fibers together – she has taken a more modern approach to doll customization. Hall’s dolls have long pony tails, high buns, different-colored hair and more pronounced facial features, such as defined eyebrows, large eyes and plump lips.

Dana Oh, a representative of the Korean American Association of South Florida and translator for the team of researchers from Korea, listens to Mable Osceola Doctor explain how the Tribe uses palmetto fibers to create Seminole dolls. (Li Cohen)

“I’m from a younger generation and I have a different way of seeing things,” she explained to the researchers. “When I make clothes, it’s inspired by pictures I see of older women, but as a younger person I’m also influenced by a lot more modern things too, like things I see on the internet. I like to mesh that with things from the past.”

Though some features were different, both styles featured the traditional patchwork, which Doctor explained is very different from the very first Seminole dolls originally hand-carved from Cypress tree bark. As Doctor explained to Koo and his team, intricate patchwork was not originally a traditional item for the Tribe.

“They didn’t have that back in the 30s,” Doctor said, saying that originally, Seminole men and women wore patchwork that was very similar and somewhat plain compared to today’s standards. “But as the 1940s and 50s came, they started making the patchwork.”

While the researchers also sought to learn more about Seneca and Navajo dolls as well, the Seminole Tribe is the only U.S. tribal group officially included in their research.

“We found that the Seminole doll was raised on the issue of survival and that the material was also used to facilitate access to the area,” Koo said of their findings. “I was interested in the fact that the doll itself contained an intensive Seminole culture. It was also impressive that they were able to protect the identity of the Tribe. I hope that in the future the Seminole doll will not only sustain, but also develop its successor.”

Their research is expected to be published in November. The NFMK also plans to open an exhibit displaying the research and dolls they researched in their children’s museum in September 2019.

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Li Cohen
Li is the copy editor for The Seminole Tribune. When she isn't drinking a [probably excessive] cup of coffee, she is reading and writing about local, national, and international news. She can also be seen running around South Florida in preparation of marathon season and travelling to new lands. Make sure to check out her work at liyakira.com, send her an email at licohen@semtribe.com and follow her journeys on Twitter (@WritingLiYakira) and Instagram (@LiYakira).
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