If you are unfamiliar with Seminole history and culture, Dr. Andrew Frank provides a brief primer to help you get started.
by Andrew K. Frank, PhD
Allen Morris Professor of History
Florida State University
Seminoles largely trace their ancestry to the ancient Indigenous people of Florida (Calusa, Tequesta, Apalachee, and others) and to Creek and other Native American migrants from Georgia and Alabama who came into Florida in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Thousands of these newcomers (called Red Stick Creeks) joined the Indigenous communities in Florida after the War of 1812 when the Creeks fought a civil war. Many of these Red Sticks became members of the Cow Creek (the modern Brighton) community. Outsiders frequently called the Indigenous Floridians “Seminoles” even as the communities themselves referred to themselves differently.
Throughout the first half of the 1800s, the United States attempted to force the Seminoles off of their lands and to remove them to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Most Seminoles refused to leave voluntarily and the US military invaded to enforce removal. Thousands of Seminoles surrendered or were captured or killed in the fighting. The United States forced those that they captured or who surrendered to Indian Territory as part of the larger Trail of Tears. This forced removal was part of the US policy of Indian Removal. The Seminole Tribe of Florida descend from the few hundred Indians who remained in Florida after the fighting ended.
The United States officially splits the military engagement with the Seminoles into three different wars. The First Seminole War lasted from 1816-1818; the Second Seminole War lasted from 1835-1842; the Third Seminole War lasted from 1855-1858. The Seminoles tend to think of the three wars as a single Seminole War as no official acts of surrender or concessions ended the wars. Instead, in each case, the United States largely withdrew its troops even as they continued to threaten the Seminoles with additional invasions and threats of removal. Decades after the third war ended, Seminoles viewed the arrival of federal officials with trepidation as technically they believed they were still in a state of war.
The Seminoles point to lots of heroes from the wars and most of these individuals are unknown to the people outside of their community. Two of the most important are Abiaka (Sam Jones) and Emateloye (Polly Parker). Abiaka was a medicine man and military leader who led the resistance throughout the war era. Emateloye was a young woman who escaped from her captors when their removal vessel stopped at St. Marks. She walked her way back to south Florida and many of her ancestors became Tribal leaders in the decades that followed. Other important leaders included Micanopy, Tiger Tail, Billy Bowlegs, etc. Many non-Seminoles think Osceola was the main leader of Seminole resistance, but this is a mistake. Osceola was a vocal warrior who was captured in 1837 and died shortly after in a U.S. prison. His capture was controversial in the United States as it occurred as part of a diplomatic meeting and under a flag of truce. As a result, Osceola became a symbol for white Americans who opposed the Seminole Wars as his tragic death direct resulted from dishonorable (and many say illegal) acts by the United States military. The Seminole resistance to the United States continued for many years after Osceola’s death. Because of their ability to withstand the US military and maintain their homelands in the heart of south Florida, the Florida Seminoles consider themselves to be the “Unconquered Tribe.”
When the long Seminole War ended, the Seminoles lived in 5 clusters of communities surrounding and to the south of Lake Okeechobee. Each community consisted of family camps that were a few miles or more from one another. The communities were roughly 50-90 miles from the next closest community. The communities, named for their locales, were Big Cypress, Cow Creek (modern day Brighton), Fish Eating Creek, Cat Fish Lake, and Miami River (modern day Miccosukee). These communities lived largely isolated from one another for many years, and today they remain the geographic center for today’s Seminole communities.
In the early twentieth century, as white and Black newcomers settled along the coasts and then interior of south Florida, the Seminoles increasingly relied on their neighbors for access to the marketplace and for employment. They had long traded with their neighbors for various items, but the draining of the Everglades and other issues made it harder for the Seminoles to be as self-sufficient as they had in the past. Seminoles frequently worked as agricultural laborers, as cattle hands, and in tourism.
In the early twentieth century, the United States formally created the Brighton, Big Cypress, and Dania (later called Hollywood) Reservations. Not all Indian lands are reservations. To be a reservation requires the recognition of the federal government and they are technically managed by the federal government in conjunction with tribal governments. Some Seminoles lived off of the official reservations, but the few services that the federal government provided and tribal protections largely remained contained to these areas. The other Seminole reservations officially formed much later.
In the 1950s, the United States threatened to eliminate the Seminole reservations in a policy called Termination. The Florida Seminoles were one of dozens of tribal nations to face this threat, but the Florida Seminoles were one of the few to successfully resist it. In exchange for maintaining their self-governance and reservation lands, the Florida Indians agreed to create a democratic centralized tribe. In 1957, the Seminoles wrote and ratified a constitution which formally created The Seminole Tribe of Florida. It is governed by a Chairman or Chairwoman (not Chief), a President who oversees the Board of Directors, and a Tribal Council that also has voting representatives from its three largest reservations (Hollywood, Big Cypress, and Brighton). Other reservations now have non-voting representation. Positions are held for four years.
A couple of decades after it became a federally recognized tribe, the Seminoles became national leaders in the nation’s struggle for economic self-determination. In the 1970s, they fought for the right to sell cigarettes tax free, operate high-stakes Bingo halls, and ultimately open modern casinos. Although they were not the only Indian nation to pursue these objectives, they obtained national prominence for their actions. In particular, the fight between local, state, and tribal interests regarding Seminole bingo resulted in several precedent-setting lawsuits. In particular, the tribe’s victory in Butterworth vs. Seminole Tribe of Florida led to the federal governments Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the modern framework for regulating tribal gaming nationwide.
Today the Seminole Tribe of Florida is a global leader in tourism (they own the Hard Rock Inc. and most of the Hard Rock franchises) and in cattle raising. Currently, they have the fourth largest herds in Florida and twelfth largest in the country. With the proceeds from these and other enterprises, the Seminole Tribe of Florida provides a range of governmental services to its citizens and residents. They include state of the art schools, medical care, senior centers, and early learning centers. They also self-govern themselves with their own police and fire departments, housing administration, and court system.