Betty Mae Jumper

By Dan McDonald

On April 27, 1923, Ada Tiger, in keeping with the tradition of Seminole women of the day, quietly slipped into the woods outside a small chickee village near Indiantown. There, behind a clump of palmetto, she gave birth. That child, whose father was a white trapper named Abe Partan, was to blaze a path that would in time help forge one of the great Native American success stories the birth and growth of the federally recognized Seminole Tribe of Florida.

How that little girl made the jump from a palmetto thicket to her current status is a remarkable achievement that is far more than the collection of accomplishments that singularly mark her claim as the reigning Tribal matriarch. She is a woman who overcame numerous obstacles while straddling the diverse cultures that were to uniquely shape her life.

"I was nearly killed by a group of Seminole men when I was just a child," Betty Mae Jumper, 74, recalls today. "I was a half-breed. An evil one. A group of men came to the camp and said me and my brother, who was two, must be destroyed or we would bring bad luck on the Tribe. But, my great uncle Jimmie Gopher grabbed his rifle and chased the men. He was a powerful man in the tribe. He was a medicine man who used to lead the Green Corn Dance before he became a Christian. My mother told me Jimmie actually fired shots that day, hitting their trucks as the men drove away."

Jimmie Gopher went to jail, arrested by a U.S. Marshal who had listened only to the English version of the event. The Miccosukee speaking family was helpless. Or nearly so. Before being hauled away, Jimmie Gopher warned the other men that if they harmed the children, he would extract revenge. He spoke in Miccosukee while the Marshall waited patiently. The children were spared.

Yet, once Gopher was released from jail, the decision was made. Ada Tiger and her two youngsters would leave Indiantown. Ada Tiger packed her belongings and headed south to Dania, an isolated, woods-filled world that would later became the Hollywood Seminole Indian Reservation. There among a few other Seminole families, the Tigers lived. But, times were hard.

"My mother and grandmother were both ranchers in Indiantown," says Betty Mae. "But, we had to leave quickly. My mother sold the herd and whatever other possessions she could and we headed to Dania. But, she didn't have the skills to work in the white world. She didn't speak the language. Those early years were very hard."

Eventually, Ada Tiger found work in the fields of white farmers. Picking beans. Tomatoes. Betty Mae and her brother Howard Tiger helped, laboring under the broiling sun. Long, hot days. But, the money helped augment the deer and turtle and fish. Those days were hard. But, now, seven decades later, it's mostly the good that Betty Mae can recall.

"Those days were hard," she says, taking a serious tone. "But, everyone worked together. We all shared. I remember the chickees. The cooking chickees. We would all visit one another. Spend time together. It was hard. But, we didn't know any different. All in all, I really miss those times."

Being in Hollywood was to have a profound impact on the young, attractive girl whose dark brown eyes absorbed everything. One of the biggest differences was in the world of medicine. At Dania, Betty Mae's mother began the family practice of Indian medicine and midwifery. But Betty Mae realized Indian medicine had limitations.

"Even when I was young I knew there had to be better ways to treat the sick," she says now, still registering signs of weariness as she recalls those lost to easily treatable ailments. "Back then, so many Indian children died of worms or the whooping cough. Things that could have easily been treated. When I was 12, my younger sister, who was three, died of whooping cough. I knew there had to be a better way. I just knew there had to be a something. I vowed then to learn the better way and to help my people."

Betty Mae realized helping meant education. While on a church sponsored trip to Oklahoma she befriended another Indian child. This child was reading a comic book. It was the first time Betty Mae realized the power of words.

"She told me the pictures talked to her," Betty Mae laughs. "Talked to her. I was amazed. But, I knew I had to learn the secret of reading. I was determined. I was on a mission."

But, there were obstacles to becoming the first of her Tribe to master reading and writing. Her own grandmother was adamantly against Betty Mae going to school. And, there were further barriers; Hollywood, in the 1930's.

"The white schools wouldn't allow an Indian to enroll," Betty Mae says. "So, my mother thought I could go to the school with the colored kids. But, they wouldn't let me in either. They said their schools were only for the colored. I was left out."

Another decision was made. The government would pay for Betty Mae's education. But, it meant leaving home. Speaking only Creek and Miccosukee, Betty Mae removed her Seminole patchwork clothing, slipped into her first store bought dress and boarded a bus for North Carolina and her first formal schooling. She was 14.

"Those first days away from home were terribly lonely for me," Betty Mae says. "I must have cried so much I finally couldn't cry any more. There were so many times I wanted to leave. To come home. But, I stayed with it."

Thirsty for knowledge, she worked hard. After just one year, Betty was placed into the fourth grade. In another, she leaped forward two more grades. She graduated from high school, the first of her Tribe to ever attain a degree. But, her education continued. Betty Mae entered the Kiowa Indian Hospital in Lawton, Ok., for nursing training.

"I think it was partly because family had always been healers," Betty Mae says. "I wanted to become a healer as well, but I realized the value of modern medicine. But, I was still driven by the desire to help my people. That's what kept me going."

Betty Mae became a nurse, and in the company of a Bureau of Indian Affairs health department nurse, traveled the back woods of Florida tending the needs of her people. Again, she collided with prejudice.

"Many of the older people didn't trust modern medicine," Betty Mae says. "Frequently we would be cursed, or threatened. Once, out on the trail, a man came up with a rifle and threatened to shoot both of us. The BIA nurse was so scared she thought we would be killed on the spot. But, I shouted that we were coming into the camp to give the kids inoculations and he couldn't stop us. He just backed away. I'll tell you, traveling those back roads at that time. It was a miracle we weren't killed but those we treated got better. It didn't take long for people to learn the value of white man's medicine. We were usually welcomed back." Today, the modern, two-story health clinic on the Hollywood Reservation is named in her honor.

Other honors include being elected to the Tribe's first Council, and two years later to the Board of Directors. In 1963, when the Tribe started a newspaper (The Smoke Signal, the forerunner of The Seminole Tribune) Betty Mae was named editor. (She still serves as Director of the Communications Department.) In 1967, she was elected Tribal Chairman, becoming the first female Tribal 'Chief' in America; Because of that position, President Richard Nixon appointed her to a two-year term on the National Indian Opportunity Council; In 1971, she was named among the top 50 Indian Women of the United States by the North American Indian Woman's Association. She has authored two books, ...and with Wagons came God's Word, and Legends of the Seminoles; She was named 'Woman of the Year' by the Jewish Women's Defense League, and 'Pioneer Woman' by the City of Dania. In 1994 she won the Florida Department of State Folklife Heritage Award and was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters degree from Florida State University. In 1995 she was inducted into the Florida Women's Hall of Fame, and in June of 1997 she won the first Lifetime Achievement Award ever presented by the Native American Journalists Association.

Now, as the Seminole Tribe of Florida celebrates its 40th anniversary we wanted to speak with those Tribal members who were there at the beginning. Betty Mae Jumper was there where it all began. Under the Council Oak.

Dan McDonald: What were those early meetings - when you worked on the Tribal Constitution - like?

Betty Mae Jumper: It was actually very easy. We all got together and talked about different ideas. I don't remember any hollering or yelling. We'd listen to all ideas and vote on them. It was all very easy. The hardest part was getting everyone together. Back then, it was a long drive to come in from Brighton and we met once a month.

DM: And you actually met under the Council Oak?

BMJ: Oh yeah. It was a nice cool spot. Open. Most of us felt more comfortable being outdoors anyway. It was an easy place to gather.

DM: Was there any resentment because you were a woman?

BMJ: No, not really. Everyone knew me from my days of working as a nurse and an interpreter. There was no problem. I wasn't the only woman there. Laura Mae Osceola and Charlotte Osceola were also there.

DM: Did you ever think the Seminole Tribe would grow to what it is now?

BMJ: No, not at all. I don't think any of us ever had any idea about that. When we were first meeting under the Oak, we used to laugh and joke amongst ourselves. We'd say, 'one day we'll be driving a Cadillac.' Of course, we never really believed it. We'd be sitting there talking about driving a Cadillac, and then go home to our open-air chickees. Those were just big dreams. I only regret that some of the other original council members didn't live long enough to see what we've become.

DM: What were the big issues facing the early council?

BMJ: I'd say it was always about getting money. Even when I took office as Chairman in 1967 I was told we had $38 in the treasury. When we went to the bank they didn't have it. There was nothing. Everything we did was a struggle. It was hard to get anything. We all had to work hard to keep things going.

DM: What did you do?

BMJ: At first we borrowed the money from the government. Later, we started to lease some of our lands. We leased land on 441 in Hollywood and on Big Cypress for citrus growers. It was a way of raising the money we needed at the time to keep things going.

DM: What was a typical meeting like?

BMJ: We always opened with a prayer, asking God to help us in our decisions. Sometimes, on big issues, we'd fast. The meetings were usually very simple. We didn't have time for lots of long discussions. Whatever we were voting on, we got to it. Nothing special.

DM: What was the biggest lesson you learned from that struggle?

BMJ: Never give up. My grandmother Mary Gopher Tiger taught me that. She used to say, 'Whatever you're doing, finish it.' She hated the fact that I went to school. When I first went to school, there were a lot of tears in the family. Her's and mine. But, when I graduated, she was the first to greet me and she told me how proud she was that I had finished. She used to say don't ever do anything halfway. If you're making sofkee, finish it. That's so important.

DM: How did the Tribal logo get created?

BMJ: We had several people come up with ideas, and we voted on them. Many different people came with drawings of a chickee, but the one we like best is the one on our logo. And, we all felt it was important to have the phrase, 'In God we trust.' I feel very strongly about that. Without God, we're nothing. He's responsible for everything.

DM: What did you most like in those old days?

BMJ: I'd say the visiting. In the old days, all Indians used to visit one another. Every night, you'd have neighbors walk over. Stop by. Say hello. Drink sofkee. I think that was the beautiful thing about living in a chickee. It was easy to socialize. Now, we're all living in homes and we don't stop to say hello to our neighbors any more.

DM: If you could change anything from today, what would it be?

BMJ: Well, I'd start with the children. Today, they have so much, but many of them don't learn the value of hard work. In the old days, everyone worked. When I was a kid, I picked beans to survive. My mother taught me how to sew. My own children had to work and I made them give me $5 out of their pay checks to help run the house. Now, the kids have it so easy and I think that's why they turn to drugs and alcohol.

And, they've lost their respect for elders. Recently I was talking with a woman and her little child answered every question I asked. I don't like that. I love little kids. I have 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. But, I don't like kids not respecting their elders. I'd like to get them back on the right path.

DM: What's your earliest memory or recollection?

BMJ: I was 5, and my family was moving from Indian Town to the Dania Reservation. I was standing alongside a huge truck. My dog 'Jeep' was barking and I was afraid he'd be left behind. I was crying. He was a big, black and white mutt, but I loved that dog. He did make the trip with us. That's the earliest memory I can place in time.

DM: That would have been 1928. What was the reservation like at that time?

BMJ: There was nothing here. Nothing. It was wilderness. All trees and palmetto. Maybe five families. But, it was high and dry. Good land really.

DM: What do you miss most from those early days?

BMJ: The quiet. We used to sit outside and you could hear the hawks and owls and whippoorwills. We would sit around a camp fire and listen to the birds and frogs. The peaceful sounds. That was wonderful. That's what I miss the most. The quiet.

Dan McDonald is Business Manager for The Seminole Tribune.