ChickenBones: A Journal
for African-American & Multiethnic Literary & Artistic Themes
The Seminoles did not exist when Europeans colonized the United States.
The anthropologist Joseph Opala argues that they are not a Native American
tribe at all, but “an Afro-Indian tribe” that coalesced in the mid-1700’s
The Seminole Tribe, Running From History
Based on article by Brent Staples
Sylvia Davis of Shawnee, Okla., is as near to royalty as a Seminole Indian can get. Ms. Davis traces her family back to William Augustus Bowles, a former actor and deserter from the British Army who joined the tribe and eventually became a minor chief in the late 1700’s. The Davis family also claims lineage to the warrior Chief Billy Bowlegs, a contemporary of the great Seminole leader Osceola. These chiefs and others battled the United States Army to a standstill in the Seminole Wars that continued intermittently in Florida throughout the early 1800’s.
Billy Bowlegs and His Wife
Billy Bowlegs was the principal Seminole leader in the Third Seminole War (1855-1858). Bowlegs and his war-weary band surrendered on May 7, 1858. Thirty-eight warriors and eighty-five women and children, including Billy’s wife, boarded the steamer, Grey Cloud, at Egmont Key to begin their journey to Indian territory. Bowlegs died soon after his arrival.
The Seminoles were eventually moved along the Trail of Tears to the wilderness of what is now Oklahoma, along with tribes including the Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw. Ms. Davis’s father still lives on land that was allotted to the family when the Indian nations were dissolved.
Until recently, Ms. Davis held an honored place on the tribal council, a position that made her the equivalent of a senator in the Seminole Nation. Two years ago, however, a reactionary faction seized control of the tribe and used a legally questionable vote to declare that Ms. Davis, and about 1,500 others, had too little “Seminole blood” to be counted as full tribal members.
The real problem is that Ms. Davis is black, in a tribe that is struggling mightily to distance itself from a history in which black Seminole warriors and chiefs had starring roles. The question of whether the tribe can legally deny federal money to the black Seminole will be decided in a closely watched federal lawsuit known as Sylvia Davis vs. the United States. The case has a deeper significance for historians, who see yet another example of how the American multicultural past is papered over by the myth of racial and ethnic purity.
Modern Americans are typically surprised to learn that Native American tribes had any black members. In most cases, as in several other tribes moved to Oklahoma, black members began as slaves. But even though blacks in the Seminole tribe sometimes posed as slaves to avoid capture, they were in fact full tribal citizens from the very beginning.
The Seminoles did not exist when Europeans colonized the United States. The anthropologist Joseph Opala argues that they are not a Native American tribe at all, but “an Afro-Indian tribe” that coalesced in the mid-1700’s when refugees from other tribes came together in the Florida wilderness with runaway slaves from the lower South. The origins of the tribe are suggested in the name Seminole, which has been translated as “runaway,” “separatist” or “pioneer.”
The Seminole Wars were costly for the American government, both in terms of money and lost lives. Gen. Thomas Sidney Jesup called it “a Negro war . . . not an Indian war,” and he warned that it would eventually spread throughout the slave states if the warrior bands were not put down. Ms. Davis’s hero, Chief Billy Bowlegs, fought off not just the Army but also the Native American tribes that sought to capture black Seminoles and sell them into slavery. Bowlegs was the last of the major war chiefs at large in Florida, fighting with a band of warriors and dozens of escaped slaves under his protection.
In Oklahoma, where the Seminoles were settled, the residents black, white and Indian often lived, worked and were buried together until the advent of statehood. Then the new State Constitution mandated radical segregation in the previously integrated Seminole society. All the Oklahoma tribes were divided into “freedmen” and “blood Indians.” This is a questionable distinction in most tribes but a clear violation of history for the Seminoles, who were multiracial from the beginning.
The so-called freedman were given land when the reservations were broken up, but they enjoyed fewer protections under the law. The second-class citizenship worsened over time, becoming an issue in 1991 when Congress voted to compensate the tribe for the lands it lost when it was relocated from Florida.
Sylvia Davis was still a member of the tribal council when she applied for $125 of the federal money to buy clothing for her son, who was starting school. In denying the request, tribal authorities repeated the century-old slander, suggesting that Ms. Davis and her son lacked sufficient “Seminole blood” to be eligible for the money. A similar fate has befallen aging and disabled black Seminoles who have been denied medical care and other benefits that nonblack Seminoles receive freely. When Ms. Davis protested the exclusion of blacks, she said, one local official told her that the black Seminoles needed to “go back to Africa.”
The prejudice against black Seminoles can be partly explained by tribal self-hatred and ignorance of history. But court documents filed in connection with the federal lawsuit show that at least one local official in the Bureau of Indian Affairs may have conspired with tribal leaders to hide the exclusion of blacks from Congress, which was bound by treaty to regard black Seminoles as members of the tribe when it voted to pay the Seminoles for Florida.
Federal courts will decide whether the Seminoles’ treatment of their black brethren is legal. But the court of public opinion will find it mean-spirited and immoral.
The Black Seminoles
The name SEMINOLE is thought to be a corruption of the Spanish word cimarron, meaning “wild” and used to refer to runaways.
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Creeks migrate to Florida
Seminole history begins with bands of Creek Indians from Georgia and Alabama who migrated to Florida in the 1700s. Conflicts with Europeans and other tribes caused them to seek new lands to live in peace.
Groups of Lower Creeks moved to Florida to get away from the dominance of Upper Creeks. Some Creeks were searching for rich, new fields to plant corn, beans and other crops. For a while, Spain even encouraged these migrations to help provide a buffer between Florida and the British colonies.
The 1770s is when Florida Indians collectively became known as Seminole, a name meaning “wild people” or “runaway.”
In addition to Creeks, Seminoles included Yuchis, Yamasses and a few aboriginal remnants. The population also increased with runaway slaves who found refuge among the Indians.
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At war with the U.S.
Run-ins with white settlers were becoming more regular by the turn of the century. Settlers wanted Indian land and their former slaves back.
In 1817, these conflicts escalated into the first of three wars against the United States. Future U.S. President Andrew Jackson invaded then-Spanish Florida and defeated the Seminoles.
After passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, the U.S. government attempted to relocate Seminoles to Oklahoma, causing yet another war — the Second Seminole War.
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His name was Osceola, or Asi-Yaholo, which came from asi, a drink containing caffeine, and Yaholo, a cry shouted by men who served asi during tribal ceremonies. He was born in a Creek Indian village near the Tallapoosa River in what is now eastern Alabama.
Osceola was among many Creeks who retreated to Florida after the Creek War (1813-1814) and joined the Seminoles. During the 1820s, Osceola became known as a successful hunter and war leader. His warriors defeated U.S. troops in several battles early in the Second Seminole War.
In 1837, Osceola met U.S. troops under a flag of truce to discuss peace. But Gen. Thomas Jesup ordered his capture and imprisoned him. Osceola died soon afterward in Fort Moultrie near Charleston, S.C.
Many Americans were outraged by Jesup’s trickery and the Army’s reputation fell sharply. Osceola, however, won widespread respect, and several towns and counties were named after him.
After defeating the U.S. in early battles of the Second Seminole War, Seminole leader Osceola was captured by the United States in Oct. 20, 1837, when U.S. troops said they wanted a truce to talk peace.
By May 8, 1858, when the United States declared an end to conflicts in the third war with the Seminoles, more than 3,000 of them had been moved west of the Mississippi River. That left roughly 200 to 300 Seminoles remaining in Florida, hidden in the swamps.
The Black Seminoles, now called Seminole Maroons by ethnologists, are a group of people who live in Oklahoma, Texas, the Bahamas, and Coahuila, Mexico. Their ancestors were runaways from the plantations of South Carolina and Georgia beginning in the late seventeenth century who sought refuge in Spanish-controlled Florida. They lived among the Seminole Indians and were closely associated with them, but they maintained a separate identity and preserved their culture and traditions.
Following the First and Second Seminole Wars (1817 -1818 and 1835 1842) some escaped to the Bahamas and others were removed with their Native American allies to the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). Ten years later some of them moved to Mexico where their descendants, known as Indios Mascogos still live. After the Civil War, a group of them moved to Texas, where in the 1870s and 1880s, they served with the U.S. Army on the Texas frontier as the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts.
Their quest involved contact with Native Americans, Spanish, British and American soldiers, settlers, traders and government officials. They suffered and survived deprivation, exploitation and destitution. Today their descendants celebrate the persistence and perseverance of their ancestors.
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Picture Credits: Bowlegs and Wife, from Harper’s Weekly, June 12, 1858; Micanopy, Tuko-see Mathla, and Neamathla by Charles Bird King
OSCEOLABlack Drink Singer
Although he was not a chief, Osceola’s ability and fiery spirit made him the symbol of resistance and a key leader in the Second Seminole War. He was captured while under a “flag of truce.” Osceola died in 1838 while imprisoned at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina.
UKO-SEE MATHLA (John Hicks)
This Seminole chief once saved a number of white men from being killed after they had been taken prisoner. When he supported the plan to move the Native Americans west he was killed by dissenting Seminoles.
MICANOPY (Head Chief)
As one of the most important chiefs in Florida, Micanopy fought against removal until the pressure of thousands of troops, disease, and starvation wiped out his band of warriors.
Neamathla, considered a man of eloquence and influence among the Seminoles, advised his people not to accept the government plan to move. Governor William DuVal deposed him by refusing to recognize him as a chief of the Seminol
posted 21 April 2002
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By Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer
American democracy is informed by the 18th centurys most cutting edge thinking on society, economics, and government. Weve learned some things in the intervening 230 years about self interest, social behaviors, and how the world works. Now, authors Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer argue that some fundamental assumptions about citizenship, society, economics, and government need updating. For many years the dominant metaphor for understanding markets and government has been the machine. Liu and Hanauer view democracy not as a machine, but as a garden. A successful garden functions according to the inexorable tendencies of nature, but it also requires goals, regular tending, and an understanding of connected ecosystems. The latest ideas from science, social science, and economicsthe cutting-edge ideas of todaygenerate these simple but revolutionary ideas: (The economy is not an efficient machine. Its an effective garden that need tending. Freedom is responsibility. Government should be about the big what and the little how. True self interest is mutual interest.
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By William Loren Katz
Christmas Eve marks the anniversary of one of the least known battles for freedom and self-determination fought in North America. In 1837, in what had become the state of Florida less than a generation earlier, the freedom fighters were members of the Seminole Nation, an alliance of African slave runaways and Native American Seminoles.
They faced the strongest power in the Americas, the combined armed forces of the United States Army, Navy and Marines, whose goal was to crush the bi-racial alliance and return its African-American members to slavery. . . . This battle took place during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), which involved U.S. Naval and Marine units, at times half of the Army, and cost 1,500 military deaths and U.S. taxpayers $30 million [pre-Civil War dollars]. After his decimated army limped back to Fort Gardner, Zachary Taylor won promotion by claiming, the Indians were driven in every direction.
Later, using his reputation as an Indian fighter, Taylor won election as the 12th President of the United States. The Seminole alliance at Lake Okeechobee delivered the Armys worst defeat in decades of Florida warfare. However truth about the battle and the three wars long remain buried, hidden or distorted. ConsortiumNews
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 13 May 2012