Based on article by Brent Staples
Sylvia Davis of Shawnee, Okla., is as near to royalty
as a Seminole Indian can get. Ms. Davis traces her family back to
William Augustus Bowles, a former actor and deserter from the British
Army who joined the tribe and eventually became a minor chief in the
late 1700's. The Davis family also claims lineage to the warrior Chief
Billy Bowlegs, a contemporary of the great Seminole leader Osceola.
These chiefs and others battled the United States Army to a standstill
in the Seminole Wars that continued intermittently in Florida throughout
the early 1800's.
Billy Bowlegs and His Wife
Billy Bowlegs was the principal Seminole leader in the Third Seminole
War (1855-1858). Bowlegs and his war-weary band surrendered on May 7,
1858. Thirty-eight warriors and eighty-five women and children,
including Billy's wife, boarded the steamer, Grey Cloud, at
Egmont Key to begin their journey to Indian territory. Bowlegs died soon
after his arrival.
The Seminoles were eventually moved along the Trail
of Tears to the wilderness of what is now Oklahoma, along with tribes
including the Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw. Ms. Davis's father
still lives on land that was allotted to the family when the Indian
nations were dissolved.
Until recently, Ms. Davis held an honored place on
the tribal council, a position that made her the equivalent of a senator
in the Seminole Nation. Two years ago, however, a reactionary
faction seized control of the tribe and used a legally questionable vote
to declare that Ms. Davis, and about 1,500 others, had too little
"Seminole blood" to be counted as full tribal members.
The real problem is that Ms. Davis is black, in a
tribe that is struggling mightily to distance itself from a history in
which black Seminole warriors and chiefs had starring roles. The
question of whether the tribe can legally deny federal money to the
black Seminole will be decided in a closely watched federal lawsuit
known as Sylvia Davis vs. the United States. The case has a deeper
significance for historians, who see yet another example of how the
American multicultural past is papered over by the myth of racial and
Modern Americans are typically surprised to learn
that Native American tribes had any black members. In most cases, as in
several other tribes moved to Oklahoma, black members began as slaves.
But even though blacks in the Seminole tribe sometimes posed as slaves
to avoid capture, they were in fact full tribal citizens from the very
The Seminoles did not exist when Europeans colonized
the United States. The anthropologist Joseph Opala argues that they are
not a Native American tribe at all, but "an Afro-Indian tribe"
that coalesced in the mid-1700's when refugees from other tribes came
together in the Florida wilderness with runaway slaves from the lower
South. The origins of the tribe are suggested in the name Seminole,
which has been translated as "runaway," "separatist"
The Seminole Wars were costly for the American
government, both in terms of money and lost lives. Gen. Thomas Sidney
Jesup called it "a Negro war . . . not an Indian war," and he
warned that it would eventually spread throughout the slave states if
the warrior bands were not put down. Ms. Davis's hero, Chief Billy
Bowlegs, fought off not just the Army but also the Native American
tribes that sought to capture black Seminoles and sell them into
slavery. Bowlegs was the last of the major war chiefs at large in
Florida, fighting with a band of warriors and dozens of escaped slaves
under his protection.
In Oklahoma, where the Seminoles were settled, the
residents — black, white and Indian — often lived, worked and were
buried together until the advent of statehood. Then the new State
Constitution mandated radical segregation in the previously integrated
Seminole society. All the Oklahoma tribes were divided into
"freedmen" and "blood Indians." This is a
questionable distinction in most tribes but a clear violation of history
for the Seminoles, who were multiracial from the beginning.
The so-called freedman were given land when the
reservations were broken up, but they enjoyed fewer protections under
the law. The second-class citizenship worsened over time, becoming an
issue in 1991 when Congress voted to compensate the tribe for the lands
it lost when it was relocated from Florida.
Sylvia Davis was still a member of the tribal council
when she applied for $125 of the federal money to buy clothing for her
son, who was starting school. In denying the request, tribal authorities
repeated the century-old slander, suggesting that Ms. Davis and her son
lacked sufficient "Seminole blood" to be eligible for the
money. A similar fate has befallen aging and disabled black Seminoles
who have been denied medical care and other benefits that nonblack
Seminoles receive freely. When Ms. Davis protested the exclusion of
blacks, she said, one local official told her that the black Seminoles
needed to "go back to Africa."
The prejudice against black Seminoles can be partly
explained by tribal self-hatred and ignorance of history. But court
documents filed in connection with the federal lawsuit show that at
least one local official in the Bureau of Indian Affairs may have
conspired with tribal leaders to hide the exclusion of blacks from
Congress, which was bound by treaty to regard black Seminoles as members
of the tribe when it voted to pay the Seminoles for Florida.
Federal courts will decide whether the Seminoles'
treatment of their black brethren is legal. But the court of public
opinion will find it mean-spirited and immoral.
The Black Seminoles
The name SEMINOLE is thought to be a corruption of the
Spanish word cimarron, meaning "wild" and used to refer to
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Creeks migrate to Florida
Seminole history begins with bands of Creek Indians
from Georgia and Alabama who migrated to Florida in the 1700s. Conflicts with
Europeans and other tribes caused them to seek new lands to live in peace.
Groups of Lower Creeks moved to Florida to get away from
the dominance of Upper Creeks. Some Creeks were searching for rich, new fields
to plant corn, beans and other crops. For a while, Spain even encouraged these
migrations to help provide a buffer between Florida and the British colonies.
The 1770s is when Florida Indians collectively became
known as Seminole, a name meaning "wild people" or
In addition to Creeks, Seminoles included Yuchis, Yamasses and a
few aboriginal remnants. The population also increased with runaway
slaves who found refuge among the Indians.
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At war with the U.S.
Run-ins with white settlers were becoming more
regular by the turn of the century. Settlers wanted Indian land and
their former slaves back.
In 1817, these conflicts escalated into the
first of three wars against the United States. Future U.S. President
Andrew Jackson invaded then-Spanish Florida and defeated the Seminoles.
After passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830,
the U.S. government attempted to relocate Seminoles to Oklahoma, causing
yet another war -- the Second Seminole War.
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His name was Osceola, or Asi-Yaholo, which came from asi,
a drink containing caffeine, and Yaholo, a cry shouted by men who
served asi during tribal ceremonies. He was born in a Creek
Indian village near the Tallapoosa River in what is now eastern Alabama.
Osceola was among many Creeks who retreated to Florida after the
Creek War (1813-1814) and joined the Seminoles. During the 1820s,
Osceola became known as a successful hunter and war leader. His warriors
defeated U.S. troops in several battles early in the Second Seminole
In 1837, Osceola met U.S. troops under a flag of truce to discuss
peace. But Gen. Thomas Jesup ordered his capture and imprisoned him.
Osceola died soon afterward in Fort Moultrie near Charleston, S.C.
Many Americans were outraged by Jesup's trickery and the Army's
reputation fell sharply. Osceola, however, won widespread respect, and
several towns and counties were named after him.
After defeating the U.S. in early battles of the Second
Seminole War, Seminole leader Osceola was captured by the United States in Oct.
20, 1837, when U.S. troops said they wanted a truce to talk peace.
By May 8, 1858, when the United States declared an end
to conflicts in the third war with the Seminoles, more than 3,000 of them had
been moved west of the Mississippi River. That left roughly 200 to 300 Seminoles
remaining in Florida, hidden in the swamps.
The Black Seminoles, now called
Seminole Maroons by ethnologists, are a group of people who live in Oklahoma,
Texas, the Bahamas, and Coahuila, Mexico. Their ancestors were runaways
from the plantations of South Carolina and Georgia beginning in the late
seventeenth century who sought refuge in Spanish-controlled Florida. They
lived among the Seminole Indians and were closely associated with them, but they
maintained a separate identity and preserved their culture and traditions.
Following the First and Second Seminole Wars (1817 -1818 and 1835 1842) some
escaped to the Bahamas and others were removed with their Native American allies
to the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). Ten years later some of
them moved to Mexico where their descendants, known as Indios Mascogos still
live. After the Civil War, a group of them moved to Texas, where in the
1870s and 1880s, they served with the U.S. Army on the Texas frontier as the
Seminole Negro Indian Scouts.
Their quest involved contact with
Native Americans, Spanish, British and American soldiers, settlers, traders and
government officials. They suffered and survived deprivation, exploitation
and destitution. Today their descendants celebrate the persistence and
perseverance of their ancestors.
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Picture Credits: Bowlegs and Wife, from Harper's
Weekly, June 12, 1858; Micanopy, Tuko-see Mathla, and Neamathla by
Charles Bird King
Black Drink Singer
Although he was not a
chief, Osceola's ability and fiery spirit made him the symbol of
resistance and a key leader in the Second Seminole War. He was captured
while under a "flag of truce." Osceola died in 1838 while imprisoned at
Fort Moultrie, South Carolina.
UKO-SEE MATHLA (John Hicks)
This Seminole chief
once saved a number of white men from being killed after they had been
taken prisoner. When he supported the plan to move the Native Americans
west he was killed by dissenting Seminoles.
MICANOPY (Head Chief)
As one of the most
important chiefs in Florida, Micanopy fought against removal until the
pressure of thousands of troops, disease, and starvation wiped out his
band of warriors.
Neamathla, considered a man of
eloquence and influence among the Seminoles, advised his people not to
accept the government plan to move. Governor William DuVal deposed him
by refusing to recognize him as a chief of the Seminol
posted 21 April 2002
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The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story
of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government
By Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer
American democracy is informed by the 18th century’s most cutting edge thinking on society, economics, and government. We’ve learned some things in the intervening 230 years about self interest, social behaviors, and how the world works. Now, authors Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer argue that some fundamental assumptions about citizenship, society, economics, and government need updating. For many years the dominant metaphor for understanding markets and government has been the machine. Liu and Hanauer view democracy not as a machine, but as a garden. A successful garden functions according to the inexorable tendencies of nature, but it also requires goals, regular tending, and an understanding of connected ecosystems. The latest ideas from science, social science, and economics—the cutting-edge ideas of today—generate these simple but revolutionary ideas: (The economy is not an efficient machine. It’s an effective garden that need tending. Freedom is responsibility. Government should be about the big what and the little how. True self interest is mutual interest.
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Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage
By William Loren Katz
Christmas Eve marks the anniversary of one of the least known battles for freedom and self-determination fought in North America. In 1837, in what had become the state of Florida less than a generation earlier, the freedom fighters were members of the Seminole Nation, an alliance of African slave runaways and Native American Seminoles.
They faced the strongest power in the Americas, the combined armed forces of the United States Army, Navy and Marines, whose goal was to crush the bi-racial alliance and return its African-American members to slavery. . . . This battle took place during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), which involved U.S. Naval and Marine units, at times half of the Army, and cost 1,500 military deaths and U.S. taxpayers $30 million [pre-Civil War dollars]. After his decimated army limped back to Fort Gardner, Zachary Taylor won promotion by claiming, “the Indians were driven in every direction.”
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(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
13 May 2012