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Performance pays tribute to Betty Mae Jumper

Actress and songwriter Shira Abergel, right, joins Tara Long for a brief canoe trip across the New River in Fort Lauderdale on March 9 as part of an outdoor public performance that honored great women in Fort Lauderdale history. Abergel performed the role of Betty Mae Jumper. (Kevin Johnson photo)

FORT LAUDERDALE — Before Shira Abergel put on a patchwork outfit and paddled across the New River in a canoe, and before she sat barefoot in a tree singing a tribute song that she wrote, the Miami songwriter and actress did her homework.

Abergel, 31, wanted to make sure her performance that honored the late Seminole leader and pioneer Betty Mae Jumper adhered to the Tribe’s culture.

“Shira was so wonderful about it,” said visual and performance artist Christina Pettersson. “She was concerned about whether it would be okay to portray her given the fact that [Shira] has no Native American roots. She approached different people [in the Tribe] to receive the blessing for it. I thought that was really wonderful of her, and that’s exactly the kind of person she is.”

Pettersson organized an evening of individual outdoor public performances along Fort Lauderdale’s downtown Riverwalk on March 9 as part of a Girls Club offsite performance series that coincided with Women’s History Month. “Along the Shadow of the River” honored six renowned women who left their mark in South Florida history: pioneer Frankee Lewis; real estate developer Mary Brickell; educator and activist Ivy Stranahan; champion swimmer/diver and World War II pilot Katherine Rawls; civil rights activist Eula Johnson; and Betty Mae Jumper, who led the Seminole Tribe as its first and so far only female Chief and in a vast array of other areas, including education, health and journalism.

As Abergel discovered while doing her research, Betty Mae also sang.

“I was asked by Christina to create a piece about Betty Mae Jumper,” Abergel said. “I had no idea what I was going to do. So I started doing research and I came across her Smithsonian Folkways recordings where she is singing a cappella some Native songs. There’s one called “Hallelujah;” there’s one called “Turtle’s Song to the Wolf.” I listened to those recordings. They moved me; they influenced me. I was inspired by those melodies and rhythms. From that, I just caught a melody in my head and I went with that. I did a lot of research about her and I wrote a song paying tribute to Betty Mae Jumper.”

After canoeing across the New River with performer Tara Long as her co-pilot, Abergel sat along the water’s edge on the base of a tree as she performed her song about Betty Mae. About 60 spectators quickly took Abergel’s lead and joined in with rhythmic clapping for the duration of the 2 minute and 45 second piece, whose words touched on a variety of aspects in Betty Mae’s life, including her contentious entrance into the world that was not universally welcomed in the Tribe, her education and “driving spirit,” and how she helped the Tribe.

“The fact [Abergel] created this whole song I thought was really tremendous,” Pettersson said.

Asked about what she learned, Abergel reeled off facts about Betty Mae, from her birth in Indiantown, to nearly being killed by medicine men, to the important role education played in her life.

“She somehow convinced her family to allow her to go to high school in North Carolina, and received an American education, which [was] a big stepping outside of the ways. She went to Oklahoma and got her nursing degree and learned western medicine and brought it back to the Seminole Tribe,” Abergel said.

Abergel’s voice wasn’t the only enlightening part of her repertoire. She wore a Seminole dress that was made especially for the performance by Trisha Osceola and Brittany Macias.

“It’s amazing. I’m super touched,” Abergel said. “I can’t believe they put this much love and energy into this for a small local performance. It’s really touching.”

Abergel learned more about Seminole culture after the show when she met Everett Osceola, Vanessa Frank and J.D. Bowers. Abergel noted that until the Betty Mae role emerged, she had no association with the Tribe. Her research on Betty Mae yielded a greater appreciation.

“She seemed like a really busy person without feeling busy,” Abergel said. “It was just her nature to do the best that she could for her Tribe. She saw it as her Tribe and she wanted to go out and educate herself and bring it back to them and help them and enlighten them and give them whatever she could offer. She made stories for kids; she started The Seminole Tribune, where Seminole voices could be heard and they could communicate in other ways than they had before. I definitely have admiration for her.”

The evening’s performances brought guests through a walking journey that started in the fountain of a plaza, stopped on train tracks before moving onto the grounds of the New River Museum and along the banks of the river. Each stop featured individual performances, such as Nikki Rollason swimming and dancing the role of Katherine Rawls in the fountain, and opera singer Shanna Nolan Gundry, as Ivy Stranahan, singing from the second floor balcony of the museum. Other performers included Octavia Yearwood as Eula Johnson, Jessica Farr as Mary Brickell and Mae Silver as Frankee Lewis.

“The trick I always find is to pick really talented people to be involved in these things and then you don’t have to worry about it,” Pettersson said about the cast.

For Abergel, the opportunity to play the role of a Native American sparked something from within.

“I’ve been ignited by this for sure,” she said. “I think it’s important that all Americans get in touch with the Native American story. That’s where it began. We should all know it, inside and out.”

Betty Mae Tiger Jumper
Written By: Shira Lee

CHORUS

Betty Mae Jumper
Betty Mae Tiger Jumper Jumper (2x)

VERSE 1

Native name: Potackee
First female Seminole Chief
Now back to the time – when she was born half white
Mother: Medicine Woman
Father: French trapper
She was a Snake Clan Woman
Snake Clan Woman
Of the Tribe
Woman of the Tribe
Of the Seminole Tribe

CHORUS

Betty Mae Jumper
Betty Mae Tiger Jumper Jumper (2x)

VERSE 2

“Half Breed” – so they said
Tried to put her to death
From her first breath
From her first breath
She was a Driving Spirit
Driving Spirit
Drove her to education – to help her people

CHORUS

Betty Mae Jumper
Betty Mae Tiger Jumper Jumper (2x)

VERSE 3

There were stories that she told
And the wounded that she heal-ed
Spirit that she drove
Challenged Anglo and Seminole
Her deeds historical
Influence universal

CHORUS

Betty Mae Jumper
Betty Mae Tiger Jumper Jumper (2x)

VERSE 4

Brought her tribe the new ways
Opened minds and pathways
Alligator Wrestler – showed how you can test her
She got the strength of a Tiger
That’s Betty Mae Tiger Jumper

CHORUS

Betty Mae Jumper
Betty Mae Tiger Jumper Jumper (2x)

Shira Abergel sings a song she wrote about Betty Mae Jumper during a performance along the New River in Fort Lauderdale. (Kevin Johnson photo)
After her tribute to Betty Mae Jumper, Shira Abergel is joined by, from left, Vanessa Frank, J.D. Bowers and Everett Osceola in downtown Fort Lauderdale. (Kevin Johnson)
Opera singer Shanna Nolan Gundry portrays Ivy Stranahan during the March 8 performance.
(Kevin Johnson photo)
Nikki Rollason performs as champion swimmer and World War II pilot Katherine Rawls. (Kevin Johnson photo)
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