Native American Studies
Survival and Sovereignty: The Seminole Tribes
The Nation -
The Seminole tribe is the product of an ethno-cultural blending of the Creek peoples from the lower-central Southeast with indigenous Floridian tribes such as the Choctaw, Timuquan and Apalachicolas, some of whom were part of the Muschogean culture. The meaning of the word “Seminole” has been interpreted, loosely, as “runaway” or “broken off” (McReynolds 1957, 12). This refers to the separation of the Lower Creek peoples from the larger tribe, as described by an 18th-century observer. “Runaway,” reported historian Wiley Thompson, was “applicable to all the Indians in the Territory of Florida as all of them ran away…from the Creek…” (McReynolds 1957, 12). Runaway African-American slaves added to this conglomeration of native peoples, making the Seminoles a truly renegade people in every sense. The Seminoles saw themselves as having waged a long struggle for freedom. “The Indians who constituted the nucleus of (the) Florida group thought of themselves as yat;siminoli or ‘free people…’” (Seminole Tribe of Florida, 2013).
The Seminoles spread throughout Florida during the second half of the 18th century. A diverse group, they brought with them a broad range of skills and means of subsistence, including farming, hunting, fishing and a form of animal husbandry. From their North Florida homeland, the tribe expanded south, establishing settlements as far as the Everglades by 1800 (Grunwald 2006, 30). North Florida became a kind of paradise to the Seminoles,
a place of abundance and great natural beauty. “Here our navel strings were first cut, and the blood from them sunk into the earth, and made the country dear to us,” (Grunwald 2006, 30). However, the conflict between Florida’s European conquerors would eventually turn North Florida into inhospitable territory.
The victory of the United States over Great Britain in 1783 returned Florida to Spanish rule, though only briefly. Florida had been just one of many of the conquistadors’ many domains in America, and the native peoples there, particularly the Seminoles, had co-existed more or less successfully with the Europeans. However, the Adams-Onis treaty of 1819, in which Spain turned Florida over to the new American republic, was a harbinger of trouble to come for the Seminole people. It created a contentious situation in which increasing numbers of American settlers, particularly plantation owners, pushed hard for possession of Seminole lands. Black Seminoles, runaway slaves who had become integrated with the tribe, were a particular source of friction. “For white settlers who already coveted Indian land, the threat of a savage tribe becoming a magnet for escaped slaves was an excellent excuse for an invasion” (Grunwald 2006, 31).
Thus, the position of the American government became increasingly militant. The Treaty of 1832 offered the Seminoles the option of removing west of the Mississippi or staying in Florida. Those that remained waged war against a vastly superior American force, led by Andrew Jackson, in the Second Seminole War. Guerilla warfare proved effective for the Seminoles for many years. However, the war ended in 1842 and most of the Seminoles were forced to relocate far to the west, while some retreated to the remotest regions of South Florida.
This geographic divide remains the defining fact of life among the Seminoles, who today are comprised of tribes in Oklahoma and Florida.
Culture and Tradition -
The Seminoles’ ancient cultural roots in the Creek tradition have remained the defining factor in the tribe’s identity. Many of the spiritual observances, such as the Green Corn Dance, have been handed down from ancient Creek belief systems, which include the ritual smoking of tobacco. The Green Corn Dance is the Creek and Seminole celebration of New Year, a time for forgiveness, fasting and renewal. It is also a time for settling…