Memories of Dramatic Change
Oral History and Anthropology Among Seminole Indians in Florida
Anthropologist James Ellison writes about the changes Florida's largest Native American tribe has faced in the last three decades and explains the importance of the Seminole Oral History Project, a collaboration with historian Julian Pleasants that includes 250 interviews recorded over the last 30 years.
Florida's Seminole Indians were once known for craft sales and alligator wrestling at popular tourist attractions across south Florida. Today a more common image of Seminole Indians involves bingo halls and cigarette sales. While superficial, these images point to real changes with important consequences for members of Florida's largest Native American tribe.
In collaboration with Julian Pleasants, I am completing a project to assess the nature of these changes and their impacts on Seminoles' lives. With funding from the state of Florida's Bureau of Historic Preservation, we completed 50 oral history interviews with members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and others associated with the tribe.
We spoke with political and religious leaders, teachers, tourism workers, cattle ranchers, agriculture experts, small business owners, health workers, and culture and language specialists. Interviewees included men and women, young adults and elders, and took place at people's homes and places of work. We sought people's reflections on changes to their daily lives, and they described the most dramatic changes in twentieth-century Seminole history.
In order to understand these changes, we are analyzing these recent interviews in conjunction with 200 interviews with Seminole Indians from the 1970s, archived in the Proctor oral history collection. In some cases we were able to re-interview people who were recorded more than twenty years ago.
Young Seminoles today assume access to high quality education, health care, and economic opportunity, whereas in mid century their parents and grandparents faced poverty and underdevelopment, while racism characterized many interactions with non-Indians.
Mary Jene Coppedge, who works at the tribe's offices at Big Cypress reservation, recalled, "I remember going to La Belle with my grandparents and still picking up groceries at the back door because the Indian people were not allowed inside. I was probably six, seven, or eight at the time [in the early 1960s] and I still remember that. I thought it was normal."
With 1970s economic changes, Seminoles increasingly encouraged the young to pursue education, to learn to operate effectively in white society, and in turn to help the tribe. Joe Frank, who in the 1970s was the first Seminole to attend the University of Florida, discussed the changing views toward education.
"[T]he attitude on higher education has really opened up. I think there was some interest back in the early 1970s, but there just were not too many opportunities. Today there is quite a bit of opportunity for students to go [to school] and a lot of the parents out here now have at least a high school degree or GED.... I think that a lot more parents expect their kids to go, whereas back in the late 1960s and early 1970s the education level of the parents just was not there and they didn't really push."
Jim Shore, the tribe's general counsel and a tribe member who earned his law degree at Stetson, offered his opinion about the foundation of the new opportunities. "I think there are probably no two ways about it; gaming has gotten us to where we are. I think back to 1979-1980, when we first started the bingo hall here [in Hollywood, FL]. The one here was the first one of its kind across the whole country.... Gaming is what got us here."
While gaming and cigarette sales funded economic development and new opportunities like universal access to quality education, it gradually became apparent that the new opportunities threatened the existence of Mikasuki and Creek, first languages of most Seminoles. Lorene Gopher, who works with language and culture education at Brighton reservation, explained that "some people would say, well, they always told us, do not forget your language, always teach your kids the language. My grandma never told us that. I think she thought that it was going to be always there. I mean, how could you forget it if that is who you are?... So my kids know the language, but they do not speak it."
A result of these cultural and economic changes is that many people who grew up speaking Mikasuki or Creek as a first language now have children whose first language is English. Today the tribe and its members are making great efforts to preserve Seminole culture and language in the face of these changes. The tribe has constructed a first-rate museum with preservation and educational facilities. Seminole teachers at reservations and some public schools address the problem by holding culture and language classes, and adults who were raised speaking English can attend adult language and culture classes.
Economic changes also exacerbated health problems throughout Seminole society so that today almost everyone in the tribe has at least indirect experience with alcoholism, drug abuse, and diabetes. These same economic opportunities, however, provide the tribe and its members with the means to confront and perhaps overcome these problems. Helene Johns Buster, a nurse at the Big Cypress clinic, explained the connection.
"I think probably the one big change in our lives has been the dividends, the moneys that we have coming in to each tribal member today. There have been a lot of positives but [also] a lot of negatives that have gone with it, I feel. The positives are that we have been able to go outside of our little cocoon, our little reservation, and been able to see this world out there that we never could afford to see before....
"On the other hand, that same thing that makes us able to go do those things has been a very suppressing thing for us because it keeps the people that are in the addiction able to afford their addiction.... They do not ever have to hit a financial rock bottom because they have that monthly money coming in....
"I see both parts of it. And it is sad.... We talk about preserving our culture and our traditions and all that, but we kill ourselves off, one by one, with the drugs and the alcohol. And we are killing ourselves with diabetes. One by one. And those are things that we can control; they do not have to be killing us, but they are the three major things that are killing us today: diabetes, drugs, and alcohol. That is our destruction today."
When asked if that meant the revenues from things like bingo were both the culprit and the means to overcome these problems, Helene answered yes. "That is the way I see it. It is the same thing, the problem and the answer is the same thing; you just have to know how to use it." Helene seeks the solution through her work as a nurse and by organizing large recovery programs to help tribe members.
Examining these and other issues, we are studying what people have said since the 1970s about their diverse experiences with cultural and economic changes. One result will be a book in which Seminole Indians discuss these experiences and how they have continued to work to shape the future. More than a collaboration between a historian and an anthropologist, our project is also a dialogue with Seminole Indians that spans thirty years.