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First Posted: Feb 6, 2012
Feb 6, 2012

Seminole Indians

Wikipedia Commons
Seminole Portraits

Total population: est. 18,600
Seminole Nation of Oklahoma: 15,572 enrolled, Seminole Tribe of Florida, Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florid
Regions with significant populations: United States (Oklahoma, Florida)
Languages: English, Mikasuki, Creek Religion Protestantism, Catholicism, Green Corn Ceremony
Related ethnic groups: Miccosukee, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek)

"...The Seminole are a Native American people originally of Florida, who now reside primarily in that state and Oklahoma. The Seminole nation emerged in a process of ethnogenesis out of groups of Native Americans, most significantly Creek from what is now Georgia and Alabama, who settled in Florida in the early 18th century. The word Seminole is a corruption of cimarrón, a Spanish term for 'runaway' or 'wild one', historically used for certain Native American groups in Florida. The Seminole are closely related to the Miccosukee, who were recognized as a separate tribe in 1962.

After an initial period of colonization in Florida, during which they distanced themselves increasingly from other Creek groups, the Seminole established a thriving trade network during the British and second Spanish periods (roughly 1767-1821). The tribe expanded considerably during this time, and was further supplemented from the late 18th century with the appearance of the Black Seminoles - free blacks and escaped slaves who settled in communities near Seminole towns, where they paid tribute to the Native Americans in exchange for protection. However, tensions grew between the Seminole and the United States to the north, leading to a series of conflicts known as the Seminole Wars (1818-1858).[5] Over the course of the wars most Seminoles were forced to relocate west of the Mississippi River in a process of Indian removal. Perhaps fewer than 200 Seminoles remained in Florida, but those who did fostered a resurgence in traditional customs and a culture of staunch independence.

Seminole culture is largely derived from Creek culture. Most Seminole speak the Mikasuki language, with some (such as those living on the Brighton Seminole Reservation) speaking Creek; English is also prevalent today. The most important ceremony is the Green Corn Dance, which is celebrated largely as it is among the Creeks; other notable Creek-derived traditions include use of the black drink and ritual smoking of tobacco. As the Seminole adapted to the Florida environment, they developed their own local traditions, such as the construction of open air thatched-roof houses known as chickees.

The Seminole who moved west of the Mississippi largely settled in what is now Oklahoma. Today most are enrolled with the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, while others belong to unorganized groups. The Florida Seminoles reestablished limited relations with the U.S. government in the late 19th century, and eventually received 5,000 acres (20 km2) of reservation land in Florida. However, few Seminole had interest in moving to reservations until the 1940s, when many Seminole Christians relocated to them in order to establish their own churches. Reservation governments were founded, and the Seminole Tribe of Florida received federal recognition in 1957. However, the recognition caused conflict with a group living along the Tamiami Trail, who did not feel appropriately represented; they sought federal recognition as the Miccosukee Tribe, which they received in 1962.


In the late 18th century, the Lower Creeks, a tribe of Muscogee people, began to migrate into Florida to evade the dominance of the Upper Creeks, effectively displacing the Calusa and Mayaimi tribes with the aid of the Spanish who moved many of them to Cuba, where the tribes' populations were soon decimated by disease. The Seminole intermingled with the Choctaw and other few remaining indigenous people there, some recently arrived as refugees after the Yamasee War, such as the Yuchi, Yamasee and others. In a process of ethnogenesis, they formed a new culture which they called 'Seminole', a derivative of the Mvskoke' (a Creek language) word simano-li, an adaptation of the Spanish cimarrón which means 'wild' (in their case, 'wild men'), or 'runaway'. The Seminole were a heterogeneous tribe made up of mostly Lower Creeks from Georgia, Mikasuki-speaking Muscogees, escaped African-American slaves, and to a lesser extent, Native Americans from other tribes and even white Americans. The unified Seminole spoke two languages: Creek and Mikasuki (a modern dialect similar to Hitchiti), two different members of the Muscogean Native American languages family, a language group that includes Choctaw and Chickasaw.

During the colonial years, the Seminole were on good terms with both the Spanish and the British. In 1784, the treaty ending the American Revolutionary War transferred British rule of Florida to Spain. The Spanish Empire's decline enabled the Seminole to settle more deeply into Florida. They were led by a dynasty of chiefs founded in the 18th century by Cowkeeper. This dynasty lasted until 1842, when the US forced the majority of Seminole to move from Florida to the Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma) after the Second Seminole War. There is also a village of Black Seminoles who have lived at Red Bays on Andros Island in the Bahamas since the 1820s.


Seminole tribes generally follow Christianity, both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, and their traditional Native religion, which is expressed through the stomp dance and the Green Corn Ceremony. Indigenous peoples have practiced Green Corn ceremonies for centuries. Contemporary southeastern Native American tribes, such as the Seminole and Muscogee Creek, still practice these ceremonies. A high degree of syncretism exists between Christianity and traditional Seminole religion, and Seminole Christian churches often sing hymns in the traditional languages.

In the 1950s, federal projects prompted the tribe's reorganization. They created organizations within tribal governance to promote modernization. As Christian pastors began preaching on reservations, Green Corn Ceremony attendance decreased. This created tension between religiously traditional Seminoles and those who began adopting Christianity. In the 1960s and 1970s, some tribal members on reservations, such as the Brighton Seminole Indian Reservation, viewed organized Christianity as a threat to their traditions. Tribal reorganization appeared to be one factor in facilitating Christian conversion, but that also represented social changes of a new generation.

By the 1980s, Seminole communities were concerned about loss of language and tradition. Many tribal members began to revive the observance of traditional Green Corn Dance ceremonies, and some moved away from Christianity. By 2000 religious tension between Green Corn Dance attendees and Christians (particularly Baptists) decreased. Some Seminole families participate in both religions.

Seminole Wars

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Coeehajo, Chief, 1837

After attacks by Spanish settlers on Native American towns, natives began raiding Georgia settlements, purportedly at the behest of the Spanish. In the early 19th century, the U.S. Army made increasingly frequent incursions into Spanish territory to recapture escaped slaves. General Andrew Jackson's 1817-1818 campaign against the Seminoles became known as the First Seminole War. Following the war, the United States effectively controlled East Florida.

In 1819 the United States and Spain signed the Adams-Onís Treaty, which took effect in 1821. According to its terms, the United States acquired Florida and, in exchange, renounced all claims to Texas. Andrew Jackson was named military governor of Florida. As European-American settlement increased after the treaty, settlers pressured the Federal government to remove the Native Americans from Florida. Slaveholders resented that tribes harbored runaway black slaves, and more settlers wanted access to desirable lands held by Native Americans. Georgian slaveholders wanted the 'maroons' and fugitive slaves living among the Seminoles, known today as Black Seminoles, returned to slavery.

In 1832, the United States government signed the Treaty of Payne's Landing with a few of the Seminole chiefs. They promised lands west of the Mississippi River if the chiefs agreed to leave Florida voluntarily with their peoples. The Seminoles who remained prepared for war. White settlers continued to press for removal.

In 1835, the U.S. Army arrived to enforce the treaty. Seminole leader Osceola led the vastly outnumbered resistance during the Second Seminole War. Drawing on a population of about 4,000 Seminole Indians and 800 allied Black Seminoles, he mustered at most 1,400 warriors (Andrew Jackson estimated they had only 900). They countered combined U.S. Army and militia forces that ranged from 6,000 troops at the outset to 9,000 at the peak of deployment in 1837. To survive, the Seminole allies employed guerrilla tactics with devastating effect against U.S. forces. Osceola was arrested when he came under a flag of truce to negotiations in 1837. He died in jail less than a year later. His body was buried without his head, which was preserved.

Other war chiefs, such as Halleck Tustenuggee and Jumper, and Black Seminoles Abraham and John Horse, continued the Seminole resistance against the army. After a full decade of fighting, the war ended in 1842. Scholars estimate the U.S. government spent about $40,000,000 on the war, at the time a huge sum. Many Native Americans were forcibly exiled to Creek lands west of the Mississippi; others retreated into the Everglades. In the end, the government gave up trying to subjugate the Seminoles and left the estimated fewer than 500 survivors in peace. ...

...During the Seminole Wars, the Seminole people began to break apart due to the conflict and differences in ideology. The Seminole population had also been growing significantly, though it was diminished by the wars. With the division of the Seminole tribe, some traditions such as powwow trails and ceremonies were maintained among them. The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and the Seminole Tribe of Florida described below are fully independent nations that operate in their own spheres.

Oklahoma Seminole

As a result of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842) about 3,800 Seminole and maroons were forcibly removed to Indian Territory (the modern state of Oklahoma). During the American Civil War, the members and leaders split over their loyalties, with John Chupco refusing to sign a treaty with the Confederacy. From 1861-1866, he led as chief of the Seminole who supported the Union and fought in the Indian Brigade.

The split lasted until 1872. After the war, the United States government negotiated only with the loyal Seminole, requiring the tribe to make a new peace treaty to cover those who allied with the Confederacy, to emancipate their slaves, and to extend tribal citizenship to those freedmen who chose to stay in Seminole territory.

The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma now has about 6,000 enrolled members, who are divided into fourteen bands, similar to clans. Two are called 'Freedmen Bands' (also 'Black Seminoles') because they descended in part from escaped slaves who were freed after the Civil War. Band membership is matrilineal: children are members of their mother's band. The group is ruled by an elected council, with two members from each band. The capital is at Wewoka, Oklahoma. Recently tribal citizenship disputes have arisen related to the membership status of 'Seminole Freedmen' in Oklahoma.

Florida Seminole

The remaining few hundred Seminoles survived in the Florida swamplands avoiding removal. They lived in the Everglades, to isolate themselves from European-Americans. Seminoles continued their distinctive life, such as 'clan-based matrilocal residence in scattered thatched-roof chickee camps.' Today, the 21st century descendants of the Seminole proudly note the Seminole were never officially conquered. That is one source of the nation's sovereign rights.

After the Third Seminole War, the Seminoles in Florida divided into two groups; those who were more traditional and those willing to adapt to the reservations. Those who accepted reservation lands and made adaptations were recognized as the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Those who preferred the more traditional lifestyle organized themselves as the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida. Other Seminoles not affiliated with either of the federally recognized groups are known as Traditional or Independent Seminoles.

Seminole Tribe of Florida

The Seminole worked to adapt, but they were highly affected by the rapidly changing American environment. Natural disasters magnified changes from the governmental drainage project of the Everglades. Residential, agricultural and business development changed the 'natural, social, political, and economic environment' of the Seminole. In the 1930s, the Seminole slowly began to move onto federally designated reservation lands within the region. The US government had purchased lands and put them in trust for Seminole use. Initially, few Seminoles had any interest in moving to the reservation land or in establishing more formal relations with the government. Some feared that if they moved onto reservations, they would be forced to move to Oklahoma. Others accepted the move in hopes of stability, jobs promised by the Indian New Deal, or as new converts to Christianity.

Beginning in the 1940s, however, more Seminoles began to move to the reservations. A major catalyst for this was the conversion of many Seminole to Christianity, following missionary effort spearheaded by the Creek Baptist evangelist Stanley Smith. For the new converts, relocating to the reservations afforded them the opportunity to establish their own churches. Reservation Seminoles began forming tribal governments and forming ties with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1957 the nation reorganized and established formal relations with the US government as the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The Seminole Tribe of Florida is headquartered in Hollywood, Florida. They control several reservations: Big Cypress, Brighton Seminole Indian Reservation, Dania, Florida State Reservation, and Tampa Reservation.

Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida

The relocation to reservations and the federal recognition of the Seminole Tribe of Florida - a move largely supported by residents of the reservations - caused antiphathy between the reservation Seminole and those who had chosen not to move. In particularly, a group known as the Trail Indians, who lived along the Tamiami Trail, felt disenfranchised by the situation. This was exacerbated in 1950 when some reservation Seminoles filed a land claim suit against the federal government that was not supported by the Trail Indians.

Following the recognition of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Trail Indians decided to organize their own separate tribal government. They sought recognition as the Miccosukee Tribe, as they spoke the Mikasuki (Miccosukee) language. They received full recognition in 1962, and received their own reservation land, collectively known as the Miccosukee Indian Reservation. The Miccosukee Tribe set up a 333-acre (1.35 km2) reservation on the northern border of Everglades National Park, about 45 miles (72 km) west of Miami. ..."

For More Information:

Seminole Tribe of Florida