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Through the Years

In 1967, less than 40 years after Betty Mae escaped death, she would be elected chairman of the Tribe that would have killed her. The first woman ever to lead the Seminoles - or any other Federally recognized Tribe in the nation for that matter.

And later she would be honored by Governor Lawton Chiles, who in 1994 inducted her into the Florida Women's Hall of Fame at an elaborate ceremony in Tallahassee at the Governor's Mansion.

"I had three goals in my life," the short, determined 75-year-old says in the flat, sing-song style of the Seminoles. Hands folded, leaning forward, she looks small behind her desk at the Tribal offices on Stirling Road. "To finish school, to take nurse's training and come back and work among my people and to write three books."

She accomplished those and more. Jumper became the first Seminole to read and write English, graduate from high school, to become a nurse, to bring white medicine to her people, in 1993 the first Native American named to the Florida Women's Hall of Fame.

Jumper has written two books. "And With the Wagon -- Came God's Word" and "Legends of the Seminoles." She's currently at work on an autobiography.

What a read it should be. "She's a human history book, born out in the swamps -- and today she has an honorary doctorate from Florida State University," says Peter Gallagher, former senior writer for the Seminole Tribune, the official newspaper of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Her story begins, however, in that harsh childhood. She remembers seeing her white father only once, when she was 12. "I ran and hid," she says. "I didn't want to see him." He was a trapper and sugarcane worker who traded with the Indians, but eventually was run off by the Tribe.

In the early years in Indiantown, she says, "We were never hungry." But that would not always be the case. Her mother, Ada Tiger, had over 500 head of cattle, lots of pigs and chickens, wealth that unfortunately could not be transferred to the Hollywood Reservation. Forced to abandon the livestock, Ada Tiger sold as much as she could and bought a car before moving south.

In Hollywood, her great uncle Jimmie Gopher landed a reservation job. But her mother and grandmother, Betty says, "didn't know how to work in the white man's world." Often only cornbread and sofkee, a drink or soup made of corn, filled their empty stomachs.

Gradually, Ada Tiger and her mother, Mary Gopher Tiger (who Betty Mae says lived to be 104), made their way to the white man's fields. Betty Mae and her brother Howard tagged along to help pick the beans and tomatoes.

The work was numbing, the wages low. But at least from time to time, now blessed with money or game from a hunt, the cook fires popped with the grease of pigs, beef, deer or turtle.

Listening to the owls

Betty remembers with a certain nostalgia the comforting closeness of nature in those days of open-air, thatched-roof chickees; the fresh scent of pine, the musk of the damp earth, the lulling hum of insects, birds and animals rising from the thicket in a choral assurance that all was right in the world.

"I used to love to listen to the owls way in the distance. I could recognize all the different ones," she says, sounding like a child again.

"Back then, there was nothing around here," she says, waving her arm toward the windows of her second-floor office in the tall, modern glass, steel and concrete-block structure that is the Tribal headquarters.

In the old days, there were always two chickees, one for cooking and eating, the other for sleeping. Around the fire, or snuggled under the mosquito netting next to her grandmother, Betty Mae heard her Tribal stories that decades later she would set down in print.

Through the oral tradition, each generation became a depository of wisdom to be drawn upon by the next. The stories were cultural links, the chain on which survival skills and morality were passed down.

"The stories taught you how to live," Jumper says. "Sometimes they told us what the woman's place in the Tribal world was." Sometimes, they served as warnings.

The story about an Indian who turns into a snake after eating fish found on the ground (instead of caught in the river) warns that things found in unexpected places may be harmful. Other Lessons:

  • Sell rattlesnakes and the floods will come.

  • Answer the night howl of an owl, and your spirit will be whisked away.

  • Point at a rainbow and your finger will cease to bend.

    Jumper remembers clearly when the notion of a white man's education seized her. She was at a Baptist encampment in Oklahoma and met another Indian girl, slightly older, who was always reading comic books.

    "What is that?" Betty Mae asked.

    "It talks to you," the girl said.

    The book didn't talk to Jumper.

    "I don't understand these black marks," she told the girl, thumbing through the comics.

    The girl explained the magic was in reading, learned in school.

    The idea that she too could unlock the secrets of talking books excited Jumper. No sooner had the family returned to the Hollywood Reservation than Betty began pressing her mother for schooling. But education was not easily had. As an Indian child in the '20s and '30s, Betty was barred from white schools.

    "My mother had a good friend, a black woman who worked in the fields with her. She had two black daughters. We used to play together. The woman said I could go to the black school with her daughters."

    Not so. Betty found the black school no more open to her than the white. "She isn't black," the principal told Ada Tiger.

    Once again, Jimmie Gopher came through. He talked to the Indian agent and learned that Betty Mae could go to boarding school in Oklahoma or North Carolina, at government expense.

    At the age of 14, speaking only Creek and Miccosukee, Betty swapped her patchwork dress for the clothing of whites, and she, her brother and cousin headed to North Carolina for their first exposure to school.

    "I cried a lot," Jumper says, remembering the loneliness and alienation. She was especially sad at Christmas since her family could not afford to bring her home. Only in the summer would she return to her family and the Hollywood Reservation. But she was learning. After one semester, she went from a special class into fourth grade.

    Betty Mae Jumper (left) with Brother Howard Tiger.
    Her cousin soon dropped out of school, and her brother left to become the first Seminole to enlist in the United States armed services. He joined the Marines during World War II. Only Betty Mae graduated. She then went on to train for nursing at the Kiowa Indian Hospital in Lawton, Oklahoma.

    After returning home, and working for a while at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Jumper took her white man's medicine on the road. She had a regular circuit between the distant reservations: Hollywood, Big Cypress, Brighton and the Miccosukee reservation on Tamiami Trail.

    Resistance at first was strong, especially from traditional Tribal medicine men. "They were mad at me. They said they didn't want no mixed white medicine." More than once, Betty and the public-health nurse who eventually joined her were turned back by rifles.

    "But people we gave the medicine to got better," and they wanted us to come back," Jumper says.

    Today the health-care clinic on the Hollywood reservation bears her name.

    In 1946, Betty Mae married Moses Jumper, "the first Seminole to join the U.S. Navy." He was an alligator wrestler, a charmer. But, as Jumper was to find out, an alcoholic, haunted to the end by nightmares of World War II.

    "He couldn't cope with the things he saw in the war, and I think that's why he drank," she says of her late husband, who died in 1992.

    Moses Jumper Jr., Betty Mae's oldest child and a poet, remembers Betty Mae grabbing her two sons and daughter and fleeing the house for the woods during the turbulent times. "We'd have to hide from him all night long," Moses Jumper, Jr. says.

    "And there were times when we'd wake up at night and hear them screaming. My mother never touched a drop of alcohol. But she had a fiery temper and she was not about to take everything he handed out. She was our role model," he says. "She got us to church, got me to baseball and football practices, she emphasized athletics, and school."

    Attendance at school and church was absolute, non-negotiable. Moses Jumper, Jr., also known by his friends as "Big Shot", recalls his first three years of schooling were at Pine Crest School, a pricey private school then located on Broward Boulevard, east of Federal Highway. Moses attended on scholarship. One morning when the car would not start, Moses says, his mother "got out the old bicycle, put me on the back and she started pedaling me down Stirling Road."

    "Big Shot" tried to persuade Betty Mae to let him skip that day. She would have none of it. If she had to pedal all the way to Pompano Beach or beyond, she'd get him to his lessons. Fortunately, a friend in a car spotted them a few miles down the road and drove "Big Shot" the rest of the way.

    Betty Mae was the strength of the family, selling her native arts and crafts. And, when Moses Jumper Sr. was not well or sober enough to wrestle gators, Betty Mae, as her son describes it, "grabbed the old stick and climbed into the pit."

    "It was my kids' bread and butter," Betty Mae says.

    Besides, as a member of the snake clan whose permission must be sought to wrestle gators, she'd been playing with gators all her life. "Since we were children, my mother taught us how to put them to sleep."

    Hail to the chief

    Betty Mae doesn't know where she got her political ambition, though her mother (a great medicine woman) and her grandmother were strong and decisive women.

    Jumper became the first vice chairman after the Tribe's reorganization and formal recognition by the U.S. government in 1957. Ten years later, urged on by Tribal women, Betty Mae squared off against three male opponents for the hotly contested seat of Seminole Tribal Chairman. She won, becoming her people's first and, to date, only elected female Indian chief.

    "I proved I could do a lot of things," she says matter-of-factly. "People also knew, I do what I say I'll do."

    Jumper, who held the office from 1967 to 1971, brought the Seminole and Miccosukees together with the Choctaw and Cherokee to form a coalition called United Southeastern Tribes (USET), that recently honored Betty Mae at its 25 year celebration as one of its original founding members. This organization now consists of over 26 tribes that direct health and educational efforts for all members from headquarters located outside of Nashville, Tennessee and Washington D.C.

    She also financially salvaged the nearly bankrupt Tribe.

    "When I came in (to office) the Tribe had $35. That's what it said on paper." In fact, even that sum existed only in ink. Jumper infused the Tribal coffers with a half-a-million-dollar surplus before she left office. This, mind you, in the days before tax free cigarettes and casinos flooded the reservation with money. It was Jumper who held things together, says Gallagher, reporter for the Seminole Tribune, an award winning Indian newspaper whose origins lie in a paper started by Betty Mae in 1963 called The Alligator Times.

    Under Betty Mae's leadership, the Council came up with the lucrative idea of leasing Seminole lands along U.S. Highway 441-State Road 7, to outsiders. The Tribe also leased its holdings elsewhere to citrus growers.

    Gallagher, who has worked with Jumper, now the Tribe's communications director and the Tribune's editor in chief, since 1984, says, "I look at Betty Mae the same way as I look at Marjory Stoneman Douglas: as a Florida legend.... I think Betty Mae should be on anybody's top 10 list of living women.

    "Big Shot", Moses Jumper, Jr., agrees. After his dad died, his mother again went through tough times, medically and emotionally, he says. She was battling cancer when she buried her husband. Leg and knee problems began to idle her. And, years later, she almost died from encephalitis.

    One day, "Big Shot" says, she called the family together to say this Christmas would probably be the last Christmas they would share together.

    But surgery just over seven years ago appears to have beaten the cancer. She recovered from the encephalitis, had her knee joints replaced, and now, "Big Shot" says, "She's going 100 miles an hour."

    She also has a male-admirer, and according to Moses, is rarely home anymore.

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

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