To commemorate National Native American Heritage month in November, the Stranahan House Museum in Fort Laudedale celebrated Seminole life – past and present – during a Facebook Live presentation Nov. 30.
Everett Osceola, the Seminole Tribe’s cultural ambassador and Stranahan House board member, fielded questions from online viewers. Stranahan House historian Jonathan Axler moderated the event and showed old Seminole artifacts from the museum, including patchwork and dolls.
Osceola’s introduction to the Stranahan House came a few years ago when he covered a concert there by former chairman James Billie for Seminole Media Productions. The museum piqued Osceola’s interest, so he learned all he could through history books, museum recordings and stories from tribal Elders.
“Some of the Elders remembered sitting down with Ivy [Stranahan] as she read to them,” Osceola said.
The history of the Seminoles and the Stranahans goes back to the early 1900s, when Seminoles traveled by dugout canoe from the Everglades to Fort Lauderdale to trade at Frank and Ivy’s trading post. Alligator skins were the most popular commodities but they also traded pelts, baskets and dolls for food staples such as sugar and lard, beads and material.
“When they started trading, they were getting ripped off,” Osceola said. “Stranahan told them what their goods were really worth. They helped get the Dania reservation and got the kids proper shoes and wardrobe so they could go to school.”
The Stranahan’s place on the New River had ample room for tribal members to stay for days at a time. Former schoolteacher Ivy taught them English, how to read and founded Friends of the Seminoles, which she led for 50 years.
Frank Stranahan introduced tribal members to hand-cranked sewing machines, which helped the evolution of Seminole patchwork. In the early 1900s the patchwork was very basic, but when they got the sewing machines more intricate designs were possible. New and more intricate patchwork designs are still being made.
“Fire is my favorite patchwork because it can also mean passion or rage,” Osceola said. “My grandmother used to do patchwork and I used to lay in her sewing machine room and fall asleep to the sound of it. Now if I see a movie with a sewing machine, I get sleepy.”
One viewer asked Osceola about men’s clothing. Osceola explained the longshirts were meant to protect their arms from mosquitos and other insects, but also keep them cool.
“Turbans are mostly decorative today, but back then they used it as a sleeping bag,” he said. “They slept on the fabric and rolled it into a turban in the morning. It also kept sweat out of their faces. Everything had a practical purpose.”
When explaining Seminole language to a viewer, Osceola said his mother’s side of the family speaks Creek, his father’s side speaks Elaponke and he had to learn a third language – English. Another viewer wanted to know the difference between the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes.
“There isn’t much difference,” Osceola said. “We share the same stories, customs, culture and language. The main difference is they are federally recognized as a different tribe. It’s more of a political difference, but we always look out for each other. When Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, we helped them out with food using swamp buggies and airboats.”
In the old days, dugout canoes were the best way to travel in South Florida and were made from large cypress trees. Now it’s difficult to find large trees here. A few years ago Osceola and Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum village crafter Pedro Zepeda got some submerged trees from the swamps of Louisiana where they grow much larger.
A question about Black Seminoles led to an answer of runaway slaves being welcomed into the tribe during the Seminole Wars.
“They came to us for refuge,” Osceola said. “We had separate camps but after a while we shared our ways and they shared theirs. Some are in my family today. The Fort Pierce reservation is mostly descendants of Black Seminoles and most speak Creek. Aaron, Shammy and Marlon Tommie are my cousins, we are all family.”
A viewer asked about the purpose of clans. The eight clans are Bird, Panther, Deer, Otter, Wind, Big Town, Bear and Snake.
“During the Seminole wars we had over 60 clans,” Osceola said. “They help with family and bloodline, but most importantly it is a way for us to retrace our history. We don’t always write our history and language down, but we have our clan system to trace it. My aunt can trace our heritage back 200 years through the clans. It’s almost like patchwork; it’s an intricate pattern that is more than just your family tree.”
Inevitably a question about alligator wrestling came up, but the questioner wanted to know if alligator wrestlers also wrestle crocodiles. Florida is the only place where both alligators and crocodiles live together. Osceola said crocodiles are more aggressive than the more docile alligators and he never dealt with one.
Alligator wrestling began as a search for food. Men would capture the gators and use them for food, hides to trade and they even kept bugs away. Outsiders saw Seminoles take on the gators and gave them money for their effort. Osceola said the money accumulated and they realized showmanship was more valuable than hides. Okalee Village was started as a venue for alligator wrestling, tribal fairs and other gatherings.
“Back when I had a waistline and two good knees, I used to wrestle alligators,” Osceola said. “I started by helping and spotting for my uncles who wrestled. We would keep our eyes on the gators when the wrestler talked to the crowd.”
Osceola revealed how to determine the length of an alligator. Measure the length from the tip of its nose to the eyes. If it is six inches, then the gator is six feet long from tip of the nose to the end of the tail.
Osceola was asked if he was related to Chief Osceola from the Seminole war era. He is not, but he is a descendant of Polly Parker. He suggested people look up other significant Seminole leaders including Sam Jones (Abiaka) and Coacoochee (Wild Cat).
“Native Americans contribute a lot to what America is today,” Osceola said. “If it wasn’t for Ivy Stranahan we wouldn’t have our reservation in Hollywood, which has made us the most prominent tribe because of gaming.”