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The Early Days

baby
Betty Mae Jumper, second from the left, shortly after her family moved to Broward County.
Betty Mae Tiger was born April 27, 1923. She was delivered into this world by her grandmother, Mary Tiger, and a white woman named Sis, beneath a palmetto thatch roof in a birth chickee east of the Big Lake, about a quarter mile into the Big Forest from the Seminole camp at Indiantown. Her mother was Ada Tiger, a full-blooded Seminole and a member of the Snake Clan; Ada had been sent away from the village to have her baby, as was the custom in those days.

"It was believed that when a woman has a baby, she was to go at least a quarter of a mile away from the camp. At this spot, other ladies would prepare a shade for her or build a small chickee for her so she could deliver the baby there," wrote Betty Mae, in an essay which has never been published. "Men and boys could not be around at this time, only the Medicine Man was allowed. The ladies would put a pole in the ground and bend it toward the woman so she could hold onto it during labor.

"After the baby was delivered, the mother and baby were bathed and put to bed. This bed had been made by the other ladies. They would stay in this place for four days and four nights. One lady would stay and cook for the new baby's mother. On the fourth morning, the mother would bathe again. All of the clothing she had used during this time was thrown away.

"The mother could not be around men and boys for four months. She would eat alone during this period. On the fourth month, the baby's hair would be cut off, and it would get new clothes and a new name."

The father of Ada Tiger's baby girl was a white man, a French trapper and a cane cutter who lived nearby and traded with the Seminoles. In 1923, in that part of the world, among these particular people, a half-breed was cause for alarm. The fear and hatred of the white man still ran hot in the blood of Tribal leaders and medicine men. Sons of the runaways, their entire lives had been a bitter dance on the crumbling edge of a doomed world.

"All half-breeds were killed. If a girl got mixed up with a white man, she was beaten up and whipped. Some could not get up for days after the beating. They would kill the white man if they caught him around the Indian girl," wrote Betty Mae. "In the early 1920s, half-breeds were still being killed. They would put mud in the baby's mouth to choke it. Or just throw the baby in the water. The government finally stepped in and stopped it."

The Indiantown Seminoles were a particularly rough and traditional bunch. They were direct descendents from the war band of irascible Billy Bowlegs, who single-handedly started the Third Seminole War and was the last Seminole war leader to be departed to Oklahoma. This was a man who perfected the art of ambush and run. Openly cooperating with the white man's system was not one of Billy Bowlegs' character attributes.

Further complicating the changing world of the Seminole was the specter of Christianity in the swamps. The 1920s saw the first circuit-riding preachers infiltrate the heathen Florida Indians. It was a dramatic, divisive time. Some medicine men were easily convinced; others would not throw down their medicine bundles.

The Tiger family of Indiantown were early converts and great friends with the famous Oklahoma preacher Willie King. His spiritual guidance proved a source of strength throughout Betty Mae Jumper's life. With great difficulty, she learned to maintain an unspoken, enigmatic balance between the seemingly opposite concepts of The Word and her Seminole culture.

In this atmosphere, it was no surprise to her great uncle Jimmy Gopher that the Indiantown villagers would want to kill little Betty Mae. Late one night, primal fire in their eyes and the swirl of the medicine man in their conscience, a throng demanded the half-breed's death. A man to be reckoned with, however, Uncle Jimmy had been ready since the day she was born. He and Grandpa Tom Tiger answered their shouts with a smoking shotgun.

Though the bullets worked to save the child's life on one night, the persecution would not go away. Ada Tiger packed up her family and moved south to join other Seminoles in the "big city" village at Dania, in Broward County. Eventually, the entire Indiantown camp would disband. Faced with impossible circumstances, Betty Mae's father had left for the West long before; she sought to stay in touch, however, and from a distance, the white side of her family has followed her career with pride.

Much of the turmoil which surrounded her formative years was lost on young Betty Mae, who was barely five years old when her family left Indiantown.

** Reprinted by permission of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

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