A Vote For Destiny
By Patsy West
The culmination of years of hard work and persuasive discussion by a handful of Seminoles on the Dania (now Hollywood), Big Cypress, and Brighton Reservations led to the adoption of a Charter and Constitution by democratic vote on Aug. 21, 1957. It was the voters who were the denominators in this great decision-making event. That is why there is no photo of the formal "signing." The voters at the ballot box were the fireworks.
However, the momentum for Tribal organization came years earlier. In fact, Tribal organization might not have occurred for a decade or more had there not been a catalyst, a crisis to overcome.
With the conclusion of World War II, there was a push to reduce federal expenses. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was one of the departments targeted. As the BIA looked around for programs to cut, Assistant Commissioner William Zimmerman felt that the termination of federal services to some Native American tribes would create a sizeable budget reduction. Thus the concept of tribal "termination" was born. The Florida Seminoles were on the list.
Termination hearings were announced in 1953. They found the Florida Seminoles seemingly helpless to defend themselves. Since the 1940s, only five Seminoles had managed to graduate with a high school education from out-of-state Indian boarding schools. A few men had received a basic rudimentary education from Bible colleges. A handful of other Seminoles were enrolled in night time adult education classes.
But were these people ready and able to oversee the formal creation of their tribe? Was this organizing group, which consisted of educated Christian Seminoles, capable of introducing the Seminole population of nativistic illiterates to non-traditional decision-making and a break from traditional leadership? Those who traditionally based knowledge and maturity on age, not book learning? Could the organizing group handle the paperwork and legwork, with no money for travel? This project would be a phenomenal undertaking.
But the threat of termination, having all governmental services suspended, and being evicted from the reservations which were their only legal home, was a mighty incentive. After all, a tribe is only a "Tribe" when the people can interact together.
On Oct. 9, 1953 an emergency meeting was called by the Superintendent of the Seminole Agency, Kenneth Marmon, at the agency headquarters on the Dania Reservation. Attending were officials from the Muscogee, OK office, representatives from all three Seminole reservations and "the Tamiami Trail Group." A plea which would become the slogan of the Seminole termination hearings originated at that meeting: that "no action be taken on the termination of Federal supervision over the property of the Seminole Tribe of the Indians of Florida for a period of 25 years."
Florida Sen. Dwight L. Rogers recalled the committee's fears: "They stated that they felt they were not advanced far enough to take over the administration of Tribal property and that removal of federal supervision should await the training of members of the Tribe so that the best interests of the Indians will be served."
But there was another factor in this already tense situation. The federal government stubbornly considered all of the 918 Indians in southern Florida to be "Seminoles." Even though the vocal "Trail" leaders had defiantly and publicly protested any such designation since the 1920s. They now represented some 305 traditional, non-reservation people from Fort Pierce south to the Trail.
Because of the government's designation of all Indians as "Seminoles," and as there was no formal tribal government in Florida which the federal government recognized, the superintendent of the Seminole Agency of Florida asked for nominations of two individuals to be elected on the three Seminole reservations and the Trail to represent their areas at the future hearings. Dania was thus represented by Sam Tommie and Laura Mae Osceola; Brighton: Billy Osceola and Toby Johns; Big Cypress: Josie Billie and Jimmie Cypress; and Trail: Henry Cypress and Curtis Osceola.
March 1-2, 1954, saw Josie Billie, Henry Cypress, Toby Johns, Billy Osceola, Larry Mike Osceola, Laura Mae Osceola, and Sam Tommie in Washington to testify at the Joint Hearing before the Subcommittees of the Committees on Interior and Insular Affairs of the 83rd Congress. Buffalo Tiger represented the non-reservation group, who were anxious to retain their government by their own traditional Tribal Council.
The formation of the Seminole Tribe was begun. A board of directors of the Seminole Tribe was created. The board met in Dania, April 4, 1955 with Bill Osceola, Chairman and Laura Mae Osceola, Secretary. Interpreters were appointed. Billy Osceola for the "Cow Creeks" and George Storm for the "Miccosukai group." Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the non-reservation faction had been excluded as the Seminole Tribal movement gathered momentum. The board discussed problems which would be presented to the congressional committee from Washington, the 84th Congress, at Clewiston two days later.
A main concern was to have the Seminole Tribe's business committees recognized so that they could officially work with Washington. By having such an organizational base they hoped to be eligible for federal trust money for reservation improvements. Another important issue addressed was curbing the non-reservation faction (then referred to as the "Ingraham Billie group" by the Board) which, because of different viewpoints, was getting in the way of the "Seminole Tribe's" forward progress.
At the hearings in Clewiston on April 6 - 7, 1955, key speakers testified in support of the Seminoles' request for the continuance of government supervision for the next 25 years: among them The Friends of the Seminoles Florida Foundation, Inc. Mrs. O. H. Abbey, President, Mrs. Frank Stranahan, Chairman of the Legislative Committee, Mrs. M.R. Johnson, Past President; Bertram Scott, Seminole Indian Association, Executive Secretary; Mrs. Francis D. Sheldon, State Chairman of Indian Welfare, Florida Federation of Women's Clubs.
These women had conceived or developed their organizations to specifically aid the Seminoles. They supported the first children at boarding schools, supplying clothes, shoes, gifts, transportation, and money. They then lobbied to get the Seminole children admitted into local public schools. They floated loans to Seminole men who wished to become homeowners. In short, they were vitally interested in the promotion of the Seminole population. This meeting also saw Agnes Denver, a Seminole living in Utah, called home to issue a statement.
The non-reservation faction was championed by the United Seminole Affairs Association of Miami. Buffalo Tiger interpreted for the non-reservation faction in statements heard from Sam Jones of Fort Pierce; Frank Charlie, Ingraham Billie, and Jimmie Billie of South Florida. But, there was no money to make the necessary trips to Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.
In 1956, Bill Osceola took the situation in hand. He got a commitment of cattle from the Brighton cattlemen and got lumber donated from people in Broward County. He built a rodeo grounds on the Dania Reservation and held rodeos as a tourist attraction. The opening day saw 500 spectators.
"The arena was built and we had the shows and made money for the expenses to take trips to Oklahoma and to Washington, D.C., asking for help in organizing our people into a tribe," Bill Osceola recalled. The Fort. Lauderdale News nodded its approval of the project: "It was (the Seminoles') first attempt at a community effort to help themselves, and it was a success!" Because there was no "council house" at the Dania Reservation in those days, many important meetings were conducted at a table and benches under an oak tree which became known as the "Council Oak." The tradition continues as Council inductions are often held under the Oak today.
By 1957, the BIA wished to speed up the Seminoles' organizational progress. They sent Reginald (Rex) Quinn (a Sisseton-Wahpeton) to Dania to aid the Seminoles with the process of self-government. On March 26, a constitutional committee was selected. Their task would be to write a constitution and corporate charter.
The Constitutional Committee members were: Billy Osceola, John Henry Gopher (Brighton), Bill Osceola, Jack Willie (Dania), Jimmie O. Osceola and Frank J. Billie (Big Cypress), and Larry Mike Osceola (Trail, but not of the Trail faction). Bill Osceola of Dania was elected Chairman of the Committee. These people who were placed in such a great position of responsibility were elected from only around 50 people who attended the Dania meeting.
With completed documents before them, meetings were held on each reservation with Quinn to discuss the writs. The very capable Laura Mae Osceola, who had been deeply involved with the Tribal committees from the beginning, translated on all three reservations. From these discussions, both a Board of Directors and a Tribal Council was created.
In a recent conversation, Constitutional Committee member Jimmie O. Osceola, who also served as Frank J. Billie's secretary, said that he was amazed at the total, unified backing the voters of Big Cypress gave to the concept. The turnout for the final meeting was representative of the reservation population (minus one or two elderly people) and the hands in the air to support the constitution and charter exactly equalled the meeting tally. The vote of support also included the Tribe's eligibility for around $40,000 in the State's trust fund for reservation improvements.
Running hot and cold water and indoor plumbing were still novel on even the more cosmopolitan Dania Reservation in the 1950s. Outdoor plumbing and a shower near a tree was the general fare. Chickees in the white sand under the oaks were homes to most families. The situation must have seemed insurmountable to those who were trying to create a federally recognized tribe which would soon be responsible for governing itself, weighted down by the major handicap of poor living conditions. The reservation Seminoles' needs seemed to be met by the conceptual adoption of their constitution and charter, and its approval by the assistant Secretary of the Interior on July 11. However, Gov. Leroy Collins was still trying, as late as July 13, 1957, and in the wake of a heated meeting at Everglades City, to see the Seminoles and the Miccosukees (which had become a hotbed of different "Trail" factions) as a unified tribe.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida ratified its constitution and bylaws on Aug. 21, 1957. All people over 21 were eligible to vote, and at least 30 percent of the 448-person Seminole population (and any Miccosukees who wished to) were required to vote in this election. The vote was 241 for and 5 against. Thus the Seminole Tribal Council replaced the traditional council of elders associated with the Corn Dance groups. The corporate charter of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc. was also approved, by a vote of 223 for and 5 against.
In this way, the members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida became the authors of their own destiny and the protectors of their inherent sovereignty.
Patsy West is a Historian for the Chairman's Office of the Seminole Tribe of Florida