Culture - Who we are
By Patsy West
The amount of beads worn by Seminole women was a phenomenon to all who saw them. Imagine the amount of stamina it took to conduct daily tasks, which were a lot more vigorous than sitting in front of a TV, while wearing 12 pounds or so of beads!
Following the Third Seminole War, as trade again resumed in the small trading posts on the rivers such as the Caloosahatchee, the Miami and New River, beads were one of the first things that the Seminole women purchased, after groceries. Recently, I discussed Aklophi (O-ce-lo-pee) and the prized string of beads that she recalled buying as a young girl when she visited Miami with her family just after the war in the 1860’s. She wore them the rest of her long life.
The necklace beads were glass, and about the size of a pea. Light blue, dark blue, and red appear to have been the most favorite colors. The beads were made in Italy and the country once known as Czechoslovakia where they were shipped to bead distributors in the northeastern United States. New York City continues to have a “bead District” which some ladies from the Reservation visited last year!
Beads were an important part of a Seminole woman’s daily routine. Upon waking, a woman would take the graduated bunches of beads from the basket to which she had stored them the night before. Meticulously, she would gather them around her neck, tying each bunch together with a string. Soon, they would be mounded from shoulders to neck. Picking guavas, chasing after her hogs, cooking over the fire, soon it was evening. At night the process was reversed. With scissors, she would clip the strings holding the bunches, beginning at the neck and lay them neatly in the basket. After a day in the southern Florida humidity, her neck would be puckery like hands left too long in water.
Like Aklophi’s beads, a Seminole woman’s beads were bought any time (not one strand for every year of her life like some insipid poem written by a non-Indian woman years ago states!) that she had extra money, perhaps from the sale of her hogs or from her manufacture of sacks of coontie starch.
Seminole Women had their own income and were independent in their wealth long before non-Indian women were allowed to manage their own affairs. But beads were also an important courting gift. When a man courted a woman, or brought her engagement presents, he might bring silver combs, a mirror, and almost always, necklace beads.
Beads were also a hazard. One account in the 1930s discussed a tragedy that occurred on Barron’s River. A canoe with two women in it capsized and both were drowned. A newspaper article attributed the deaths to not being able to swim and the weight from the beads that they wore, which dragged them down. By the 1950s, some women who had worn such heavy weights of beads all of their lives were diagnosed with severe neck and shoulder problems. However, they did not want to give up their beads. Some put up with the pain, for the sake of fashion.