The War that Never Ended

One can’t go very far in Florida without noticing that just about every landmark has a Native American name. Most of the major water ways posses the name given by one of the many tribes that occupied the land. Unusual names such as the Swanee, Myakka, Caloosahatchee Rivers and the vast Lake Okeechobee. Likewise many roads and islands also have names originating from native dialect. Unfortunately, few of the indigenous peoples that once occupied the land are around to clue locals on any of the translations of these words. Thanks to three large scale wars that served as ethic cleansing campaigns, the United States government was largely successful in their plan to eradicate the people who occupied the land. The loose confederation of tribes that fought against these genocidal military escapades were known as the Seminoles. The Seminoles were not a homogeneous culture, rather they were a hodgepodge of different tribes that occupied lands in Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Their people spoke different languages (seven in all) and the population of Seminole’s varied as tribes migrated between territories.

Of course, the modern Floridian’s are not well versed on much of this history or the evolution of the Seminole tribe and the perilous outcomes of U.S. policy against them. Rather, most exposure people have to the Seminole tribe is through gaming and sports, specifically Florida State University athletics. Despite the seemingly polar relationship that gaming and college athletics may appear to have, they both share one binding and important feature that the tribe relies on: money. And through the use of college athletics the image of the Seminole tribe was greatly exploited and misrepresented, to the point where most Floridian’s perception of the Seminole’s history does not match anything resembling fact.

Sammy Seminole

Sammy Seminole

Florida State University didn’t always use Native American imagery. Founded in 1851, the school was originally a seminary school to be later re-organized by the Florida college system into a school exclusively for Caucasian females. Shortly after World War Two, an influx of students forced the school system to make co-educational. Although the state college had a football team in 1902, they did not play in Tallahassee. In 1950 the university built a football stadium and the team was given its Seminole namesake by the student population. As the school continued to grow, the culture on campus changed. In the 60s, the school underwent a shift to counter-culture and radicalism. In 1962 the school accepted its first African American student. However, the treatment of the Seminole mascot was anything but culturally sensitive. The first personification of the Seminole as a mascot was done in 1958, Sammie Seminole was a cartoon conceptualization that exploited the popular cultural perceptions of what an American Indian was. Sammie was a bare chested, dark skinned caricature with a tomahawk in hand and a feather in his hair. On the field, gymnasts were used to represent the mascot. They dressed in the stereotyped garb and entertained the crowds by doing flips and other acrobatic feats. The university also employed “Chief Fullabull”, a mascot that exploited the popular perception of Native Americans as drunken buffoons.

In 1977, the controversial mascots were replaced by a more conventional representation that is still used to this day. Chief Osceola became the university’s face, and the public was introduced to the history of the ill-fated hero of the Seminole tribe during the Seminole Wars. The Mascot was now a Caucasian student dressed in all leather apparel, brandishing a spear and riding an appaloosa horse named renegade. The mascot was approved by the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Had the story ended there, the story may have been perceived as dominant social conscience correcting years of insensitive caricature portrayals reminiscent of Jim Crow era minstrel shows. But the public shift from old stereotype mascots to Osceola was not the cultural enlightenment that one might interpret based on the public image presented by the university. The mascot had been conceived in 1962 by a student, but wasn’t adopted until 15 years later after persistent complaints from the Seminole tribe. Although the new Seminole mascot was approved by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the representation did not reflect historical accuracy. For starters, Chief Osceola was never really a chief. He was a Muscogee that lived amoung the Creek Indians in the panhandle of Florida. In 1832, some of the Seminole chiefs had agreed to exchange their lands in Florida for lands west of the Mississippi in the Treaty of Payne’s Landing as part of the Indian Removal Act. The Treaty was infamously secret, so secret that the Seminole Tribe of Florida was not given representation during the negotiations. After ratification of the treaty, many of the chiefs renounced the results as they had no say in the outcome. Many of the Seminoles had no intention of moving, which would set the stage for the Seminole wars. Osceola was not a chief, rather he was one of the more vocal advocates of resistance. Osceola was captured under the guise of truce negotiations and held as a political prisoner, later to die of malaria in 1835.

Portraying Oceloa as a chief was one of many inaccuracies in the modern mascot caricature. The horse that Oceloa rides is a fictional portrayal, there is no record of the Seminoles nor Oceloa ever having ridden appaloosa horses. Likewise, the flaming spear glamorized by the mascot is also historically inaccurate. The Seminoles used modern rifles during the Seminole war. The attire that was used to dress the Osceola mascot was recently changed to reflect period accurate clothing, prior to the change the “chief” was adorned with hides that were worn my Plain’s Indians. The fans too participate in offensive stereotyping of faux Indian behavior, doing tomahawk chops, war chants and face painting. These traditions were born in the era of racial indifference and persist in a modern era of students ignorant to the history that the mascot claims to represent. It is, of course, tradition that molds the minds of men and guides civilization blindly into the old racial dynamics held by previous generations. Sadly, many follow and defend the traditions without understanding the negative consequences surrounding the activities. It isn’t as if the Seminole tribe resisted the portrayal of their image. Joyotpaul Chaudhuri, a member of the Muscogee Creek tribe and a political science professor, first saw the performance of Chief Fullabull and a FSU basketball game. Outraged, he notified Chief Tommie of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which in turn put pressure on the university to stop using the mascot. It is perplexing then that the Seminole Tribe of Florida signed off on the Osceola mascot a few years later given the inaccurate portrayal and the students that continued use of offensive gameday traditions. It is perhaps without coincidence that in the late 70s when Osceola was being advanced as a new mascot that the Seminole Tribe of Florida was lobbying the State capitol building on the opposite side of the FSU campus for tribe-friendly gambling. In 1975 the Seminoles had become the first American tribe to venture into high stakes gaming when they opened a bingo hall on their reservation. The Tribe is now one of the wealthiest in the country, pulling in $800 million a year from six casinos. Each member of the Seminole tribe takes in a monthly check of $3500 from the casino profits.

Huge financial windfalls make clear how the disjointed messages of protecting the tribal image and preserving racially divisive traditions of the student body coexist. Creating too much controversy about the image of the Seminole people when so much money is online is just bad business. Especially with the campus juxtaposed to the state capital building and the vast number of alumni working within. The battle against the Seminoles wages on in the form of backwards stereotypes, but the war is being won in the casinos and banks of the Seminole tribe. The war-like spirit that clueless college kids embrace as a Seminole virtue may have some truth to it, although the weapon of choice is not a flaming spear but rather a calculated business sense that profits on the white mans own misunderstandings.