Answered by Dept. of Anthropology & Genealogy Seminole Tribe of Florida
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The US has tried making wars against the Indians, making treaties with them, and buying their land from them. In 1830, shortly after General Andrew Jackson, Indian fighter, became US President Andrew Jackson, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, and it became the official policy of the US government to forcibly remove Indians from the east side of the Mississippi River to the west side of the Mississippi, on the (short-sighted) belief that white settlers would never need that land and the Indians would be out of the way of white settlement. The "Trail of Tears," which took place in 1838, and during which so many of the Cherokee people died, was a direct result of this policy.
In 1813-14, the Seminoles' cultural relatives in Alabama rose up against the white settlers and against those other Creeks who sided with the whites. This "Creek War" sent several thousand survivors migrating southward into Florida and many others migrating westward, away from white settlement. In Florida, however, the situation was no better. As white settlement increased, it became obvious that warfare would be the result of the cultural clashes that were taking place with more and more frequency.
In fact, it was a series of wars that resulted and they are known in history as the First, Second, and Third Seminole Wars. They were the last of the national Wars of Removal fought east of the Mississippi. Over their course (1814-18; 1835-42; and 1856-58), slightly over 3,000 Seminoles were forcibly removed from Florida and transported to the West. The last forced deportation from Florida took place in 1858. The Maskókî peoples who were removed from the Southeast as a result of these wars were placed in what is now Oklahoma, where they set up formal governments as the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma. These Tribes are separate, politically, from the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, but they are all related, culturally.
Osceola gained national notoriety in the 1830s because of his passionate determination to resist removal, his ability to influence others, and his personal sense of style (one reporter called him "the Indian elegánt"). Osceola led other warriors in battles against US troops for almost two years before illness overcame him. He was captured while meeting with US troops, under a white flag of truce, about seven miles south of St. Augustine, on October 21, 1837. He and over 200 other resistors were imprisoned in Fort Marion in St. Augustine until they were transferred to Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan's Island in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, on January 1, 1838. Osceola died there, of an acute case of quinsey (strep throat) on January 30th. He was buried there, on military (now National Park Service) property, and remains there to this day.
Osceola had at least two wives and one child. They were sent to Oklahoma with the rest of the prisoners. His life is an exciting and important story - not just because of his involvement in the Wars of Removal but even more so because, as an individual, he was indicative of so many of the transitions that were taking place among his people at the time. If you would like to read further on this fascinating Native American, use the hotlink provided here to get to the Seminole Tribe's Marketplace where you can purchase the book, Osceola's Legacy (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991). The book also includes the only geneaolgical chart ever created for Osceola.
Almost all of the slaves who sought the protection of the Seminoles in Florida also left with them for Oklahoma. Many of their descendants are there today, organized as "Freedmen's Bands," and still living under the aegis of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. A few, who left Oklahoma in 1849 with the famous Florida warrior, Cowák:cuchî or Wild Cat, to fight other Indians in Mexico, returned to Texas and their descendants now live in the tiny town of Bracketville, near the Mexican border.
The Spaniards, trying to get the Indians to live in mission towns and convert to Roman Catholicism, began as early as the 1630s to call many of them cimarrones or runaways, because they fled the missions rather than give up their own beliefs. These Florida Indians heard this word as "shiminolie" and called themselves yat'siminoli, which they took as a point of pride, considering themselves "free people," rather than runaways. In the 1770s, the English heard the term for the first time and wrote it down as Siminolies — today's Seminoles.
It was the English from today's South Carolina and Georgia, who entered the lower Southeast after 1690, who first applied the nickname "Creeks" to other Maskókî peoples whom they encountered near the Ocone and Ogechee Creeks (in Georgia). These traders did not care what the specific names of the tribes were and soon began to label all of the Maskókî peoples from Georgia and Alabama, generically, as Creeks. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, pushed by white settlement, they began to move southward, into Spanish Florida.
It was also the English who first applied the term Mikisúki, in the late 1700s, to a village of Maskókî people living near present-day Tallahassee. There is some controversy over how this name came to be. It may have indicated a village where several "miccos" or civic leaders lived, or it may have referred to a wealthy village with many pigs.
Seminole men, on the other hand, traditionally received one name and many titles during their lifetimes. Their boy names were discarded when they passed into manhood (around age 14 or 15). Thereafter, they received ceremonial titles or earned titles in battle or as community leaders. The famous warrior, called "Osceola" by English speakers, is an excellent example of this process. We do not know his boy name but, in young manhood, he was given the ceremonial title of asén yahola. Asén is an important ceremonial drink. Yaha is the wolf, and yahola is the cry of the wolf or the ritual song that is sung when asén is drunk. English speakers, who could not pronounce his title correctly, corrupted it as Osceola. Today, Seminole men and women also have English names, in addition to traditional names.
First, let me begin by saying that the whole question of measuring cultural affiliation by using a blood quantum has only a limited value, no matter who is using it and how they are using it. Membership in any society is a product not only of a genetic relationship but, to a great extent, of the communal standards established and enforced by the members of that society. That is, only the society's members can determine for themselves who should be "in" and who should be "out." And the criteria that they use for determining this are unique and varied. These may (or may not) include one's "blood" relationship to accepted members of the group; residence (living with the group or away from it); cultural orthodoxy (adherence to a common set of beliefs); linguistic orthodoxy (speaking the same language); and the public will of the group (adoption or intermarriage). In the final analysis, however, all of these criteria are dependent upon a single criterion: group recognition. Which means that, after all is said and done, if the group recognizes you as a member, you are a member and, if they do not, you are not.
In colonial times, when Indian cities and towns and villages were geographically separate from Euroamerican settlements, when differences in cultures and societies and clothing and materials culture and languages and - yes, even skin colors - were very obvious, discussions of blood quanta were irrelevant. Indian groups were distinct, and controlled their own memberships absolutely, and admitted or rejected whomsoever they pleased. And, being a member of one group did not give automatic admission to any other group. Nor does it do so today. Indian tribes are not like automobile parts - they are not interchangeable.
Only within the last century has the concept of using a blood quantum as a principal determinant of membership been imposed upon the Indian tribes by non-Indians, specifically, by the U.S. government. For the most part, the U.S. government began to require Indians to be able to prove that they had one-quarter Indian (not tribal-specific) blood in order to receive services through the Bureau of Indian Affairs or BIA, a part of the US Department of the Interior. (The Indians say that BIA actually means "Boss Indians Around.") Thus, this single criterion came to have clear and demonstrable political and economic values - things that the U.S. government likes and understands.
So the U.S. government focused on this single criterion, and took it out of the context of the numerous criteria that the Indians themselves used, and assigned to it an unrealistic degree of importance, and expected the Indians to live with that, whether they liked it or not. If the U.S. government were to fulfill its moral and legal responsibilities to the Native American tribes, then tribes would cost the U.S. government money and, therefore, the U.S. government saw itself as having a vested interest in deciding which groups constituted tribes, and which did not.
At the same time, however, one of the few facets of Indian life that the U.S. government has not sought to control (at least, not completely) is tribal membership. It is universally recognized as one of the basic powers of a sovereign nation that it has the right to establish its own laws regarding citizenship and, so, the Indians have fought hard to maintain control of this facet of their sovereignty. And, in today's world, this fact has taken on increased significance because every tribe has lost members to the much more numerous and visible non-Native world. They have left their culture and their relatives for a life of better pay or more material comforts or, at least, the possibility of hiding their Indian-ness within the Euroamerican society that was (and remains, all too often) so bigoted against them. In other instances, a child who resulted from the sexual union of an Indian and a non-Indian has been raised by the non-Indian parent and never permitted to claim their Indian life. In either case, several generations may have grown to adulthood before some family member has chosen to seek out that Indian heritage.
But no individual can ever completely leave one culture or completely enter into another. Nor can simply deciding to become an Indian make you one. The fact that an individual, even one who may have some distant Indian heritage, has to seek out that heritage, is a critical reminder that, at whatever point in the past, an ancestor made a life-altering decision to leave their culture and heritage behind. And no amount of interest, or even a fervent desire, can recover that lost culture now. No amount of dressing up like an Indian, wearing feathers and buckskin, sleeping on the ground, or using phrases such as "Oh, Great Spirit" or "My Red Brothers" will make anyone an Indian either.
People call the Seminole Tribe every day, saying "How do I register [sic] myself as an Indian?" or "How do I sign up for benefits?" or "My grandmother told me that I'm a Seminole." They're always sure that, because they have black hair, or they're the only one in the family with "high cheek bones," or their grandfather was born in the Everglades, they should be admitted to membership now and welcomed home as prodigal sons and daughters! They are sure that their ancestors were all chiefs or princesses or, at the very least, great warriors. But no amount of interest or desire can make that become a reality.
And so, I hope that you have some clearer understanding of the situation now. The Seminole people of Florida have struggled, successfully, for almost half of this millennium, to preserve their culture. What purpose would be served by opening their ranks now to people who know nothing of their history, their society, their languages, their world view? Rather than preserving their culture, they would be diluting it, rashly, out of existence. What all of the wars and treaties and diseases could not accomplish - the destruction of the Seminoles - would be accomplished now, for the sole sake of a mis-perceived political expediency. Indians are not simply dark-skinned Americans who hold themselves aloof from the rest of "American" society out of some arbitrary desire to be "different." They are different! And the Seminole people believe, quite strongly, that the only way to preserve their uniqueness is to set clear boundaries for membership in the group.
To be enrolled as a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, an individual must meet three requirements. The first is a direct relationship to a Seminole who is listed on the 1957 Tribal Roll, and not on any prior censuses or rolls. That is considered by the Tribe to be its 'base roll' because 1957 is the year in which the Seminole people created a Constitution and By-laws and formed the political entity that they named the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Further, if the applicant is directly related to someone who was living with the Tribe as recently as 1957 then she or he was born inside the culture or has parents who were. Either way, the cultural association is still very current.
This currency is reinforced by the second requirement, that the applicant's blood quantum should be no less than one quarter, which indicates that she or he is no more than a single generation removed from the cultural heritage. In this process, the burden of proof lies with the individual, not with the Tribe, and anecdotal evidence is not sufficient (that is, it is not enough to say, "Well, of course, I'm an Indian; my grandmother told me so!"). Finally, the applicant must be sponsored for membership by a current Tribal member, and accepted by vote of the Tribal Council. And, with that, we return to the point where I began: the centrality of community approval or group recognition. Even if applicants meet the other requirements, they still must have community approval.
Those individuals who have Indian heritage - and even those who only think they have - have every reason, and every right, to honor that heritage. But do they have the right to assume that they can simply step into another culture and negotiate successfully its lifeways, or assume that they have the knowledge to speak with authority for that culture? The Seminoles think not.