A Piece of Our Mother: Differing Concepts of the Sacred and How to Keep it among the Seminole Tribes of Florida
In the area now known as Alabama and Georgia, a widespread and loosely confederate community of about eighty villages prospered. Founded on a network of creeks and streams, these communities were host to a people who belonged to the Maskókî linguistic family. Skilled farmers, avid sportsmen and great celebrators, these people had a largely democratic society and lived in close-knit family groups. Every year they hosted a Busk, or Green Corn Festival, to celebrate the new harvest, host games, dance, settle disputes, socialize and feast. The Green Corn Festival was also a sacred event, in which a spiritual bond was honored that connected the Maskókî people to the land and reminded them of their role as tenants and key inhabitants of their environment.
The Maskókî people lived peaceably with settlers – some tribes mingling, intermarrying, and even adopting some of the settlers’ farming techniques. However, the Revolutionary War turned some Maskókî against the settlers, and others against each other. When the war ended, the diverse group of tribes that comprised the Maskókî were brutalized and driven further South and East, into Florida, where they met native Floridian tribes who had also been oppressed and deprived of land by a sudden influx of white settlers. These tribes mingled with one another and formed the group that would eventually become known as the Seminole tribe of Florida. Among many things, the Seminoles would become famous for their willingness to harbor escaped slaves and adopt them into their ways of life. Although viciously oppressed by the U.S. government (mostly through Andrew Jackson, who organized continuous campaigns into Seminole territory), a core group of Seminoles fought to maintain their freedom and ways of life, and eventually became the only Native tribe never to sign a peace treaty with the United States – in other words, the only tribe to have decisively beaten United States military forces out of their homeland.
As the years went on, the Seminoles continued to live peacefully on their own, hunting, fishing and trading with no real connections to the world of the white man. However, modern land development soon ensured that this traditional way of living would have to come to an end. As the Seminole Indians began to struggle to make ends meet in a white man’s world, several different approaches surfaced that would come to define different Seminole groups’ identities and their places in our world today. Each of these approaches grappled with issues of sacred land and attempted to craft a definitively Seminole response to problems of identity, authenticity and independence.
In 1949, twelve Seminoles living on a reservation received fifty million dollars to give up the remainder of the rights to their aboriginal land in Florida. Buffalo Tiger, then a spokesperson and interpreter for the General Council of the traditional Seminoles, said of this incident to interviewer Catherine Caufield, “‘We were really upset…We’re not supposed to sell any land. We feel like it’s accepting a couple dollars for selling a piece of your mother.’”
Up until 1975, self-proclaimed “Traditional Seminoles” still did not own, buy or sell land. Catherine Caufield’s article, written in 1998, claims that, until the Miccosukee tribe was formed by Buffalo Tiger in 1962, Traditional Seminoles lived almost exactly as their ancestors did: hunting, fishing, living in woven chickee huts, and maintaining a mode of life based around matrilineal family lines and communities. Even at the time of the article, although Buffalo Tiger had (against his own wishes, as well as those of his fellow traditional Seminole) obtained reservation land, there were still Traditional Seminoles living in much the same ancient manner: Catherine Caufield, upon visiting one such village, observed,
Gardens were also kept around the village, and livestock wandered freely throughout. However, the Seminoles living in that village were considered “squatters,” and were being allowed to live there by a farmer with whom several of the community members were employed. Danny, the main subject of the interview, told tragic tales of how modern-day Traditional Seminoles were being threatened by the destruction of their natural environment by draining projects and logging: mercury poisoning and other chemically-generated maladies made it hard to find game appropriate for eating, and constant logging afforded Traditionals little shelter.
Traditional Seminoles consider their environment a sacred source of life, and they themselves believe they are its guardians. Their respect for the inherit sacredness of the land abounds in their attitude toward living: the Traditional Seminole way of life is undoubtedly the most environmentally sound mode of living in Florida today. Yet environmentalists and corporate developers alike discourage and have even legally banned the traditional practices that enable them to live this way – the former proclaiming these practices to be not environmentally sound, the latter because it gets in the way of business.
But the “squatters” persist in their humble, reverent way of life – a strong distaste for the dependence of reservations and the de-emphasis of tradition and community there keeps the Traditionals going. “‘This is the way I was taught and nothing’s hard for me,’” says Martha Billie in another one of Caufield’s interviews, “‘But the younger generation on the reservation, they live on the government’s money; they depend on the government’s money and without that I don’t think they can make it.’”
At the time of the article, the Traditionals had recently won a great victory in securing sacred land – the Indian Law Resource Center received a grant that enabled the purchase of a large amount of land for the purpose of the time-honored Green Corn Festival – a sacred, historical rite practiced (as mentioned in the first paragraph of this paper) for the purpose of celebration, social mingling, sports, and religious medicine rituals seen by only a handful of outsiders in its history. Previously, the Green Corn Festival had not been able to be held due to difficulty finding land in the ordained area that was not owned or too polluted to perform ceremonies on.
The Traditional Seminole, although their lives are difficult, maintain an almost exact harmony with the ways of their past that echoes and maintains the same attitude of sacredness toward the land.
However, non-traditional Seminole groups are also making efforts to reclaim their sacred ancestry. The federally registered Seminole Tribe of Florida was the first indigenous group to cleverly use its hard-got sovereign status to open tax-free smoke shops and high-stakes casinos and gambling franchises. According to one author, members of the tribe (despite outsider concerns that the tribe would become “less traditional”) “do not see a conflict between gaming and their cultural distinctiveness as a people.” As this author puts it, “Gaming did not just happen to Seminoles. Instead, it represents one stage in a complex history of twentieth-century economic development initiatives.” This author argues that gaming has given the Seminoles needed leverage to increase the “production of cultural identity.”
To verify this, another author writes of an array of cultural initiatives put into motion by the now-wealthy Seminole Tribe: Seminole housing, once Westernized to emphasize the nuclear family, is now experiencing a return to traditional Seminole matrilineal-style community housing, with houses being customized to accommodate matrilineal families and their living styles. One housing director, Joe Frank of the Panther clan, even spoke in the article of returning to pre-reservation style housing, envisioning circular houses built with the chickee village structure in mind. Tribal schools funded by the Seminole Tribe of Florida incorporate traditional education into their curriculum, and teach their students to regard their native symbols, traditions, customs and art with pride and deference. Through the long, confused and often painful process of Westernization, the Seminole Tribe of Florida has maintained much of its tradition and has managed to used its sovereign status, granted in light of Western values and by our Western government, to re-insert those traditions back into its culture in modern ways, thus keeping its own idea of the sacred alive.
In my own view, these two concepts of keeping the sacred are not mutually exclusive. Although the Traditionals refute the Seminole Tribe’s validity, and the Seminole Tribe of Florida is, for the most part, unaware that Traditional Seminoles even exist, it seems to me that each of these “factions” has developed, stuck to, and, each in their own way, triumphed with their ideas of the sacred.
– Shea Herlihy-Abba
Barnhart, Donald L. “Upper Creek Chief Opothleyahola led his people in a fighting retreat during the Civil War.” Wild West June 2005: 14, 69-70. Print.
Cattelino, Jessica. “Florida Seminole Housing and the Social Meanings of Sovereignty.” Anthropology: 699-726. Print.
Cattelino, Jessica R. “Casino Roots: The Cultural Production of Twentieth-Century Seminole Economic Development.” Native Pathways: American Indian Culture and Economic Development in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Brian Hosmer and Colleen O’Neill. Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2004. 66-90. Print.
Caufield, Catherine. “Selling a Piece of Your Mother.” EBSCOHost. Whole Earth: Fall 1998. Print.
Seminole Tribe of Florida, The. “History: where we came from.” Seminole Tribe of Florida. Monday, January 31, 2011.