SOUTHEASTERN INDIAN ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
In cooperation with the Seminole Tribe of Florida
Bowlegs, Billy, 2-4
Corn Woman, 7-8
Dade massacre, 5
Food, 1-3, 10
Green Corn Dance, 2, 4, 7-8
Jackson, Andrew, 6
Jesup, Maj. Gen. Thomas S., 6
Micanopy, Chief, 3, 5
Osceola, 2, 4, 6
Religion, 1, 4
Sports and physical fitness, 3
G: I never been in school myself. I was raised in the woods.
I've done a lot myself I never could have--writing, music.
I done a lot myself there. I know, 'cause anything's done
for me God. God, he got the power. That's what I
pray for. That's all I need. That's all I use. God's
power blesses on me; that's when I learn something. A lot
of people ask me, "How come you learn that? You never been
in school, and you speak pretty good English." I tell them
that I pray to God. God blesses on me--English, anything.
I'm going to sing into the hand [the microphone], "Jesus,
Father in Heaven." He's living in Heaven. That's what
I'm gonna sing into the hand, now. [Here, Charlie Gopher
C: There are many faces of the Seminoles. Many of them have
beautifully integrated their beliefs into the Christian
religion. Many of the Christian songs or word meaning are
the words of encouragement that the Creek-speaking people
used before the influence of the Protestant Ethic. The
transfer of the Seminole values were relatively easy to
make because they believed in a Creator who loved the little
children of Mother Earth. The Christian God was the same
as their Creator. The only difference was that the Christian
God had a heaven and a hell for people to go to.
Just as the old man has used his language with a
Christian hymn, accompanied by electric guitar, shows that
some Seminoles have exchanged many of their old ways for
new ways. In exchange for shells, shakers, and drums, many
of the Seminoles have taken up the guitar.
Mr. X preferred not to be recorded when he talked to
me about some tribal ways. This I respected. It was not
surprising to me that many of the Seminoles have not yet
forgotten some of their customs and preparations of food.
They learn to extract and utilize an extraordinary number
of uses from herbs and plants that grew through our Mother
Earth. For virtually every herb and plant, they found some
practical use, either for food or for medicine. They had
ingenious ways of utilizing herbs and plants, such as
sassafras tea, with it's beautiful aroma and delicate taste.
They would boil it into a drink in which they found great
pleasure. When they went on hunting trips or went out in
their dugout boats in order to visit relatives, they always
had this delicious drink with them--sassafras tea.
They would often talk about the different ways they
used to prepare food. The sassafras tea went along with
sofkee, too. Sofkee was made out of corn; it was a corn
drink that they relish. They had the sofkee prepared at
all times--if anyone was thirsty they could always go to
the cooking area and get a dipper full of sofkee. There
were so many variations of preparing different types of
food. Another kind of food that they liked to eat was
fish. They baked the fish, boiled, or fried it; and
with garfish they would roast it on a open grill. For
festivities like the Green Corn Dance, the oysters and
shrimp were their delicacy.
Often they would reminisce of what their grandparents
or their parents talked about in the days that Osceola or
Billy Bowlegs was around--of the rich, fertile agricultural
land that they had, the rich abundance of food. Since
agriculture was their trait, they had acres of beautiful
garden, overflowing with squash, corn, pumpkins. The
women used the herbs in order to add flavor to their food,
and the seasoning that they used was, again, sassafras.
Wild mint and sassafras leaves were put into their stews.
The women had ingenious ways of pounding different things
into flour. They had corn flour, coontie flour, and also
they pounded other things, such as hickory nuts, pecans.
Crushed hickory nuts were put into sofkee to give it
One thing I want to talk about is the coontie flour.
First of all, they would go to the woods, looking for the
special root, coontie [Zamia Integrifolia]. It is a tropi-
cal American plant whose stems and root yield a starch.
A low growing fern-like plant with long feathery leaves, its
stem is thick, from which coontie flour is made. Once they
found this root, they would dig it up and they would scrub
the stems and roots in water until it was clean. They would
spread the knotted, grey-brown stems to dry in the sun; then
they would tie them into bundles, like medicine bundles.
Then they pounded the coontie into pulp with heavy, long
poles which were big pestle and mortar. The women had two
racks, one on top of another. A big, rectangular basket
with holes in it was used as a strainer, which was the top
rack. They put the pounded roots into the top rack and poured
water over the pulpy mess. As the water gently flowed through
the pulp, it brought out the starch in the roots. The water
drained through the basket to the rack below, which was made
of watertight deerskin. Then the liquid was left for a few
days, like four days, and as the ingredients became sort of
thick, a deep layer of powder settled on the deerskin.
The women would pick up this powder, and they would lay this
powder on another rack so the sun could dry it. After
this process, it was ready to be used. They usually made
bread out of the coontie flour.
I often would ask many of the older Indian men, "Why
was it that not too many young boys and young girls were
found, especially children twelve years and under?" One
man said that while they were on the run--his ancestors--
they would hide the women, the children and the old age,
and as the army was approaching them, perhaps a child would
get frightened and they would begin to tremble and cry.
The parents, instead of having the soldiers discover them,
they would kill the children.
One interesting thing that I also was intrigued by
was when they were talking about discipline. Every morning
the whole camp would have to get up at sunrise and dip them-
selves into the water four times in order to get used to
the coldness. I thought this was sort of strange, and I
asked, "Why would you do this? What was the significance?
Was it a religious significance, or was it just a physical
fitness thing?" He said, according to stories that he had
heard, it was that the Indians, as they were on the run--
and soldiers and foot soldiers were always after them--
that they had to be prepared for quick changes. For them,
getting up before sunrise and jumping into the water, this
conditioned them to get used to the quick change of tempera-
ture, and this way they would learn to control their sound.
They would learn to be silent after doing this so many times.
Also, while they would go into the rivers, they would have
to glide through the water, or dive and go so many feet, and
they would have to, more or less, see how far they could
go under water without being seen or heard.
This is a conversation I had with Charlie Gopher. I
asked him if drinking was a problem with Indians; if this
really was Indian's ruination. He said, "I feel rightly so,
that Seminole demoralization usually coincided with white
contact, especially when the unsettled region was over-
whelmingly being populated with more settlers. The settlers
introduced liquor to our people and thereafter alcoholism
plays a part in the many loves of the Seminole. Even during
the time Osceola, Billie Bowlegs or Micanopy were around, they
were always in fear of being betrayed. They were always afraid
that maybe one member of their tribe would go to a white
settlement, and then these white people would give them
some liquor, and while under the influence of liquor they
would betray the hiding places of Osceola or Billy Bowlegs.
Now, Billy Bowlegs and Osceola weren't around during the
same time period, but he was just talking about people be-
traying these war leaders.
He felt that education was in view of blotting out the
Indian's cultural background, such as their native customs,
dress, language, and spiritual values. Charlie was telling
me that education is all right. It's the right thing to have
if one does not forsake their traditional heritage, and
that would be their native customs, such as Green Corn
Dance, and their language and their spiritual values. He
felt that Indians were very spiritual, very close to God
and Mother Nature. He said, "I have no objection to the
white man's education. It is here to stay, and it will
always be here. Our young men and women must understand
that the changes are here, that they must make adaptation.
This doesn't mean to forsake totally our way of life, and
to accept the white man's way of life. We have to make
adjustments where good of both people will work together."
Years ago he felt that it was customary to adapt to
new situations. They had to adjust and fit into their
surroundings, and if they didn't do this they perished.
He said, "Many young men and women get awfully confused.
They think one must take only the white man's set of
values, and forget about old ways. This isn't true." He
remembers when he was a small boy--if a river dried up, or
a pond dried up, it was no longer worth trying to stay around
and fish; you went on to better fishing grounds. The same
way with Indian way of life: you certainly don't give up
your fishing skills, but where the place of your natural
fishing right is no longer filled with water, you just go
on to other grounds and try to make the best of what you
have. He said that some of the young people have to take
the attitude that some of our customs have to be integrated
with the past and with the new--we must improve our customs.
He felt that forsaking our language is like abandoning
our mother. "We cannot forget our language, he said.
For example, many poems are written today about the Indian
life and about the very animals he loved, like the deer.
How many beautiful words is given to the deer in sort of
a prayer form, saying that it was the deer who had gave his
life up for me that I may have enough to eat. "It is the
deer that gave his life for me that I may have shoes to wear.
and leggings to wear, and clothes to wear." This is also
a cycle of life, and these are the types of things we
learned as childhood. The first memory of knowing this
was in our Indian language, so, as we grow up, Charlie
feels as though our first language, the words are more
meaningful than a foreign language. Therefore, what we
feel with our first language should be interpreted into
the English language, making it even more meaningful.
He said to me, "This is remembering our beautiful language,
and putting it to the fullest use." He said that men can
understand each other, and to understand ones language
will make you a better person.
I also asked Charlie if he was familiar with Dade
Massacre. He said, "Yes." I also asked him if he be-
lieved the story of Alligator and Micanopy having 1,000
men when they attacked the Dade [Maj. Francis Dade] troop.
And he said the story of Alligator and Micanopy having
about 1,000 men could not be true, because it was very dif-
ficult to gather even 500 men. Our thinking is that the
white men thought it might be that many, because out of fear
you tend to exaggerate things. Charlie felt that--through
people telling him oral things handed down generation to
generation--there weren't that many Seminoles around to
really fight the white soldiers.
I also asked Charlie, I said, "Are you aware that there
were 108 men,and eight of them were officers, and that only
He said, "I knew that many soldiers were killed, but
not the exact number. Many times the white soldiers would
sneak up on a village and set fire to it. When they did this,
men, women, and children would come running out of their
little chickees. The soldiers would start shrieking and
shouting at them in their English language, and our people
did not understand. In less than a few minutes the villages
were in black, bellowing smoke, and then there was complete,
dead silence, and only the smoking rooms lay there."
He related the story of his grandfather. Charlie said,
"My grandfather was a little boy when his village was burnt
down. His father told him to crawl along the Spanish bayonets
until he came near the swamp, and to swim through the swamps.
Even though there were deadly alligators and insects and
snakes, it was better to be devoured by these mad animals
than to die in the hands of the white men, because he showed
Therefore, I asked Charlie, "You're talking about someone
like your great-great grandfather, and when this village
burning was taking place, do you know if it was Jesup
[Maj. Gen. Thomas S. Jesup] or Andrew Jackson?"
He said, "I cannot say that it was Andrew Jackson,
because one white man is the same as another. Only the
uniform and their acts of inhumanity is remembered. Young
Seminole maidens were ill-used. Twenty men forced themselves.
This is what I've heard, and this is what has been handed
down--that one has to be on the alert for these white devils.
After the evil acts was committed, the Indian girl's legs
and arms and upper limbs, probably the pelvis, legs were
broken. There was no choice but to kill them. Whenever
the girls were raped, and left there dying usually, a
relative or another Indian would crawl back into the
area and then kill the girl in order to relieve her pain.
If a girl was lucky enough to survive these brutes, and
was pregnant by them, if the child was of white ancestry,
the tribe would kill the child."
"If this was the case, do you think that Osceola was
of white ancestry?."
Charlie says, "No, because if a white child was born
out of wedlock the child was killed. In those times, I
cannot believe that Osceola would have been the exception.
He was a noble leader. His first concern was to his fellow
There seems to be many an obsession with the older
Indians as well as the young people in the way that Osceola
was captured under the flag of truce. I've asked them, "Why
do you think they tried--when do you think that they cap-
tured Osceola under the white flag of truce?" They usually
responded, "Well, they lied to him. They couldn't catch
Osceola. He was so clever that he was weaving in and out
of the swamps, and he was frustrating the white soldiers.
They wanted to hurry up and end the Seminole Wars, and
Osceola was just really making fools of them, so the only
way they could capture him was under the flag of truce.
Perhaps it was their own misunderstanding that they just mis-
interpreted the white flag of truce."
It was their understanding that the white flag of truce
meant to quit being mean to each other, or quit being hostile
to each other and to talk. They could talk together in
peace, but maybe the Indians misinterpreted this. What the
white flag of truce really meant to the white man was to
capture the enemy, and the Indian didn't quite comprehend.
This was the way poor Osceola was taken captive. The way
he was tormented and killed is an everyday thought among the
One question I also asked Charlie, since he's a young
man, I asked him, "Well, should you think of the past and
rest on the laurels of your ancestors, or should you just
forget what happened in the past and then try to just become
a part of the dominant society?"
He said, "We cannot live today as forgotten people.
We as young people must do something to reawaken the new
interest in our way of life. We have to revive the love for
our language, the love for Green Corn Dance, and the love
for our customs, and the love for the way we used to treat
each other as brothers. We have to recreate and reconstruct
so many of our tribal customs. Not that we're going backwards,
but it is necessary that we do revive some of our good values.
These are important, and should be very important to our
way of life."
I also was curious to know why the Green Corn Dance
was so important among the Seminoles, and Charlie said,
"Well, the Green Corn Dance was the time of harvest. This
is when the corn was in full bloom, and this was giving
respect to Mother Earth for giving us abundance of food."
Then he proceeded to tell me about the Corn Woman. He said
the way the Indians actually got their corn was that a long
time ago there was a young boy who stayed with his grandmother,
and his grandmother watched over the grandson, and the grand-
son would say to his grandmother every day, "Grandmother,
where do you get your corn? We always have so much sofkee.
We always have a lot of cornbread, and we always have corn
soup. I would like to know where you get your corn, especially
when we don't have a garden of corn." His grandmother would
say, "Grandson, I tell you, there is a land that is full of
beautiful corn. Suddenly this corn usually walks into the
homes of people that love each other--that are kind to one
another. So, therefore, in our home, we are quite nice to
each other, and we love each other, and this is why we get
But the grandson was not satisfied with the story, so
he decided one day that he would peek through the house to
see what his grandmother was up to. One day while he was
playing outdoors, he decided, "This is the right time that
I will sneak up on my grandmother to see where she gets the
corn." So he gently went close to the house, and as he came
to the house he peeked through the door. As he was peeking
through the door, something strange was happening. Each time
his grandmother would walk, corn would fall from the soles of
her feet. He was completely astonished, and he thought to
himself, "Oh, my goodness, she could not be the Corn Woman,
could she?" As she would walk more corn would fall, and
she would bend down and gently pick up the corn kernels and
put it in the basket. He thought, "Oh, so she is the wonder-
ful person from the other land who has been bringing the
corn to us." He said, "I must not let my grandmother know
I have been looking."
Later on that night he comes in to eat his dinner, but
he wasn't quite hungry, and he was sitting there. He
was looking at his grandmother, and his grandmother knew that
he had seen her some way or somehow. So she said, "Grandson,
tell me, did you see where I got my corn?"
The grandson sat there, silently and then he spoke. He
said, "Yes Grandmother, I saw where you got the corn."
The grandmother said, "Well I will tell you what--
tomorrow you must walk me out to the garden spot. You must
take me there, and then I will not see you for four days,
and when you return on the fourth day, you will see a change
in the garden."
So the grandson responded to his grandmother's wishes,
and he took his grandmother out to the garden. The garden
was freshly plowed, but no corn was there whatsoever. The
grandmother said, "My grandson, you have been a good boy, and
you will continue to be a good boy, and when you grow older
you will become a good warrior. I must leave you for now,
and I will see you soon."
To the grandson left her at the garden. He went back
to his house, and four days went by, and he went back to
the garden. As he looked, there were tall, tall stalks of
corn--beautiful corn--and there were big ears of corn. He
could not find his grandmother, but he understood and knew
that his grandmother was the gift. She was the Corn Woman
who gave food to her people.
There are many versions of the Corn Woman--how she
brought corn to the Seminoles and the Creeks. There are
also other stories of how to take care of Mother Earth and
not to mistreat her, because it is she that gives us life.
This is also related to the Green Corn Dance, why the Green
Corn Dance was taken. It was sort of a spiritual thing
that the Indians experienced when they went through the
harvest time. There are also stories that during the time
Osceola and Billie Bowlegs and many leaders were around, and
they were struggling with the Seminole Wars, there was a time
of sadness when they could not continue with their Green
The authority of the clan system was even more important
than the extended family. Since the Seminoles followed the
matriarchal lineage, it was the uncle who disciplined the
children. That was usually the mother's brother, but this
did not exclude other uncles from the mother's clan from
exercising authority. For example, if family A belonged
to the Bird clan, and family B belonged to the Bird clan
too, the two families would become close relatives having
the same relationship as an extended family. This meant
that the mother's brothers of both families would be the
disciplinarians to each other's family, because they
were members of the same clan. Even though they may not
be related directly by blood, the bonds are tight, because
they belong to the same clan and the uncles must act the roles
that the clan system impose on them. They must conform to
their unwritten law of what an uncle is supposed to do.
They call the uncle amajolie or jaboa. Amajolie carries
the connotation of "my elder," or "a wise one." It was the
duty of young people to listen and follow the advice of
their uncle. It was he who told the children about the best
hunting places and where to find the sacred herbs and plants.
The evening time, he usually monopolized. For during that
time, the family would gather around the fireside to hear
the uncles tell of past events, and to tell the stories. He
also played the role of a counselor. The young people looked
to him for advice and consent. The young people had to give
him the respect due to a man of competence, who was well
versed in hunting and fishing, who knew the ways of the
herbs and plants and the animals of the forest. Also, the
uncle knew how to utilize all parts of the animals, and
the herbs and plants of the forest. The young people gave
him their fullest attention so that they may learn.
In old age when the uncle could no longer hunt and fish
and take care of himself, he fell dependent on his nieces
and nephews, and in turn they took care of him and told him
of the daily events that were known within the village.
Whether the uncle was an uncle by blood lineage or through
the clan system, the young people loved him just the same.
They were taught to give him honor and respect.
Many times the uncle would travel by dugout boats to
visit other villages, and to visit other relatives which were
twenty to thirty miles away. The children were usually sad
to see him leave, but when the other village would see the
uncle gliding through the marshes, the children would be so
delighted to see that an uncle had come from afar to spend
some time with them, they would quickly go to the chickees
and tell their mother that their uncle had come to visit them.
The women then would begin to prepare food and his favorite
dishes, and the children would immediately go out diving
for garfish and then also look for the finest turtle. The
little girls would be out looking for turtle eggs, because
many of the uncles enjoyed eating them. They would welcome
the uncle, always through a sofkee offered to the uncle
by the mother of the chickee. At this time, the mother
would ask him to talk to the children. His message would
always be the same. He would say they must honor and respect
their parents, and the older people as well, and if they
did not obey their parents and elders, then the people would
not have any respect for the children, and they could not
participate in the daily activities of the village, such
as fishing, hunting with the group, and they were not allowed
to dance in some of their sacred ceremonies or listen to
One of the finest things a young person could do was
to be helpful to others. They must learn to be a good rela-
tive. A child was told that they must help their grandmother
or their relatives, especially if they were ill--to take
firewood, or take a dipper of sofkee, or just to be near
them to talk to them. This was being a good relative, and
also being kind to the forest animals and having a good dis-
position was what would make them a good person. Then people
would say, "He is a fine person."
If the children did not do any of these things, and they
disobeyed their parents, the duty of punishment was done by
the uncle. The uncle usually scratched them on the arms and
legs and back, depending on what wrong they had done. What-
ever decisions had to be made, the household came to the
uncle's counsel. Even such things as marriage--the uncle had
to approve of the marriage. Once the young person received
the blessing of the uncle, it was again the duty of the
uncle to become their marriage counselor. Talking to the
prospective wife, he would advise her to be a good wife, that
in time of sickness it was her duty to take care of him. In
time of health it was her duty to see that she was a helpful
companion, such as making sure that food was prepared. If
relatives came to the home, she must receive them with a good
heart. She must be a good relative, and offer them food to
eat and sofkee to drink, because in a marriage one must accept
the responsibility of being a good relative. The same advice
he would give to the prospective bridegroom--that he must
treat his wife well, take care of her in time of sickness or
health. They must share job and sorrows. They must not try
to show their authority over one another.
The uncle played a very important role in the Seminole
life. He was the master of story telling. He gave advice
and consent to the young people. Also, he was the pre-
marriage counselor. Unfortunately, the custom has long died
out. Only the fragments of the social behavior one can link
with the past.