By Betty Mae Jumper
When Hurricane Irene came through South Florida recently, the Seminole Tribe closed the office so the staff could take care of their homes and prepare for the storm.
As I was home sitting and looking out the window, I saw palm fronds flying across the yard, blown by the wind. The trees were really whipping around, and my mind wandered back to years ago. I remembered another hurricane from my young days and how me and my family passed that storm near this exact same spot.
I remember my brother Howard and I sitting quiet while my family was getting ready for the ‘ho-tale-tha-ko,’ or ‘big wind.’
My Great Uncle Jimmy Gopher was in charge of preparing for the storm. Jimmy was a powerful medicine man, and he always knew the right thing to do.
The first thing Jimmy did was to get four axes. The number four is important in Indian culture and medicine. You always do things in four. Like, if you take medicine, you take four sips. You always have four logs in the fire.
So, he got four axes. One he got from the woodpile where he cut the wood. I don’t know where he got the other three, but he got them.
He jammed the handles into the ground so the blades were facing out in the direction that the wind would be coming. This he said would slow and turn the big wind away.
After he put the axes down in the ground, he jumped up and went around whooping and yelling four times. This was a powerful chant to also protect us. Then we all got to a safe place and stayed put until the big wind passed by. The safe place was our chickee.
The chickee was our traditional house, which was made of cypress logs covered with palm thatch. The chickees were built so that the roofs could slide down on the corner poles and lie flat on the ground. When Indians knew the big wind was coming, they would drop the chickee roof to the ground. Then, the entire family would crawl under the roof and stay there until the storm passed. In all the years I have known, no Indian ever lost a life while being sheltered under a chickee roof.
Some people ask me why is that? Well, we didn’t get out until we knew the big wind was out of the way and gone.
Another thing people ask is how the Indians knew that the big winds were coming. Back then, we didn’t have television weather shows giving us warnings. Yet, the Indians always knew when the big winds were coming.
I think some of the Indians could feel the weather changing in their own bodies. They also watched the animals and picked up clues from them. I know one of those tricks myself. My family always seemed to know if the big wind was going to be strong or light. One time my mother said to me when I was about ten years old, ‘follow me,’ and I did. She said, ‘you know the big wind is coming.’ I said I had heard the adults talking about it. She said she would tell me how to tell if the storm would be bad. She pointed to the dark sky where the storm seemed to be coming from and she said ‘we will stand here and you will know how strong the wind is going to be.’
I stood with my mother a while and finally she pointed towards a bird way out in the sky. She said, ‘you see that bird high in the sky?’ I said, ‘yes.’ She said, ‘well, that bird with the fork tail is the one that will tell you how strong the wind is going to be.
‘If that bird is flying low it means the wind will be real strong. When the bird is high, like this one, it means the wind isn’t going to be strong.’
She was right. That storm wasn’t bad. She said this was how our people lived through the big winds. By looking at that bird, they knew if the winds would be strong or not.
In my later teen years, another hurricane was coming and I asked my mother how strong the winds were going to be? She said, ‘go look.’ So I did. I looked in the direction of the dark cloud and waited until I saw the bird with the forked tail flying. When I got home, she asked me how the bird was flying. I said, ‘low.’ She said, ‘well, what’s it going to be?’ I said, ‘strong,’ and it was. So I truly can say my people knew how to prepare for the big winds back in those days. They didn’t have radios or news, but they knew when thing were going to happen.
I can’t tell all the tricks they knew because I can’t remember them. But, I know you can tell how strong the wind will be if you watch for the bird with the forked tail. If it’’ high in the sky, don’’ worry. But, if that bird is lying low, get ready. Ho-tale-tha-ko is on the way.