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Carrying the fire

A moving moment in the Olympic Games has always been the carrying of the Olympic flame. In the recent Games, that torch was laboriously carried with great reverence and cheering crowds, watched by millions on TV and electronic devices, as the flame reverently was brought all the way from Greece to Rio. Then, the entire host country of Brazil, over 300 cities and in all 27 states, was included in the route without letting the flame go out, a seemingly marathon endeavor.

For the Southeastern Indians, a settlement’s fire was also sacred. The Corn Dance of course was the catalyst, as a new fire was kindled at the New Year’s ceremonies in May-June, a tradition that remains today. But did you know that in Sam Jones’ day, when a town moved to a new location, live coals from the old settlement’s fire were taken along to start a new fire to keep ceremonial continuity?

This tradition was made graphically poignant during the United States’ Indian Removal program in the first half of the 19th century. The Tribes outside of Florida, beaten in war like the Creeks or rounded up peaceably, left their ancestral homes to be routed over the Trail of Tears to a new home west of the Mississippi. Imagine them carrying their fire all the way from Georgia or Alabama to Oklahoma, a distance of well over 900 miles, during the horrific trials of emotion, weather, and other hardships witnessed in this mass relocation of tribal peoples.

In his dissertation presented to Auburn University faculty in 2009, Christopher D. Haveman reported that during the forced removal over the Trail of Tears to the reservation west of the Mississippi, “Great care and ceremony accompanied the removal of the town fire and the re-consecration of new ground.” This knowledge opens up a whole new chapter of awareness in traditional leave taking, concerning the hearth-fires of the town, and the strength of the consecrated council ground.

According to Haveman’s sourcing of the Indian Pioneer History Collection of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Project, he located data collected from Creek descendant Mose Wiley, Nov. 22, 1937 in Oklahoma, “…the [Alabama] town of Fish Pond chose two men to care for the town fire prior to removal. Before their detachments commenced their march west, each man took a burning piece of wood from the town’s fire and they were responsible for keeping it burning until they consecrated their new square ground in the west.” Special social and food restrictions accompanied the honor of caring for the sacred town fire, while: “The Fish Pond embers were used to start a camp fire each night the party stopped. When camp was broken in the morning and their travels resumed, two more pieces of burning wood were taken by the two men and carried with them. This process was repeated until they re-lit their town fire in present-day Oklahoma.”

Did this tradition of “carrying the fire” continue with the Florida Indians in their fierce resistance movement against such relocation during the Seminole War(s) (1817-1858)?

It is probable that the fulfillment of this tradition would have been attempted whenever feasible, though I have not located any Florida War period reference to this tradition. However, we might assume that at least some of the Florida Indian detainees or prisoners who boarded ships on the long maritime journey to Indian Territory from Florida could have indeed managed to take coals from their last Florida fire with them. And, the possibility then equally exists that at least some of the Florida fires might have made it all the way to the reservation in Indian Territory.

We do know that the tradition of “carrying the fire” was indeed retained by the Mikasuki-speakers, the i:laponathli: in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries (and doubtless the Creeks as well). Travelling from their Everglades camps to temporary camps near towns or on seasonal hunting and gathering trips by canoe, live coals from the home fire journeyed with the families.

Years ago, while locating specimens of dugout canoes for a contemplated project with Smithsonian Curator of North American Ethnography William C. Sturtevant, I examined a number of antique cypress canoes that resided in museum collections that had been made by i:laponki:. Some of them showed small areas of centralized charring, which was definitely not associated with their initial manufacture.This led me to believe that the charring was from “carrying live coals” for a fire, which was confirmed in the writings of Mary Barr Munroe, a writer and activist and her noted author husband Kirk Munroe from Coconut Grove, Florida. Mary wrote in 1909 that the Mikasuki-speakers with whom she was closely acquainted carried “a brand from the old fire” with them as they arrived by canoe from their Everglades camps.

The documented records that discussed the cultural phenomena of “carrying the fire” from Alabama to the Oklahoma Reservation are to be found in the collected oral history interviews of the WPA Project, Oklahoma Historical Society. The WPA was created by the U.S. government during the Great Depression to give employment to millions of unemployed people under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program. Between 1935-1943, the WPA sent workers to various Indian reservations in Oklahoma to gather this valuable historic tribal data.

The New Deal also specifically aided the “Florida Seminoles.” The WPA, Florida Writers’ Project, (University of Florida, and Department of Agriculture) produced an early publication on the Florida Indians: “The Seminole Indians in Florida.” And, another of Roosevelt’s New Deal Programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps, established an “Indian Division” (CCC-ID) to hire tribal men to work on infrastructure projects across the nation. Here in Florida, the CCC-ID was focused on the newly acquired Brighton Reservation for the Creek-speaking Seminoles, which had been requested of the government by Sam Tommie and others in 1838. The New Deal also instituted the cattle program at Brighton, built Brighton’s Schoolhouse and Red Barn, and through the U.S. Indian Service, hired William and Edith Boehmer as the teacher and housekeeper.

Ethnohistorian Patsy West is Director of the Seminole/Miccosukee Archive in Ft. Lauderdale and author of “The Enduring Seminoles, A Seminole Legend” (with Betty Mae Jumper) and “Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes of Southern Florida.”