National Geographic : 1956 Dec
Florida's "Wild" Indians, the Seminole 819 Descendants of Warriors Who Fought the U. S. Army to a Standstill, These Tribesmen Still Acknowledge No Treaty with the Government BY Louis CAPRON With Illustrations by National Geographic Photographer Willard R. Culver SHRILL yips of the Indians came clearly across the darkness to where I stood at the edge of the wood, my back toward a palmetto clump, facing a half circle of snarl ing, barking dogs. Across the field a fire blazed, throwing into sharp silhouette a circle of dancing figures. Nearer at hand stood two clan camps, where cooking fires still glowed wanly. A lantern shone faintly in one of the shelters, and an old woman puttered be side it. This was the Cow Creek band of Florida's Seminole Indians. I had just slogged over miles of flooded land and was waiting now for permission from the medicine man to see my first Green Corn Dance. Medicine Man Lays Down the Rules "You wait here," Sam Tommy had said when we reached the outskirts of the dance area. "Be right back." The Florida Seminole guard their mysteries jealously, and there were plenty of stories of unpleasant things that had happened to whites who had tried to visit them unbidden. Be cause some of the Indians were my friends, I had permission of a sort, but I could easily imagine what might take place if the wrong person found me. Eventually, however, the dogs tired and went away, and Sam Tommy came back. "Okay," he said. "You can come in. But you got to do just like the medicine man says." Soon I was sitting on a log opposite the medicine man, hearing from him what I could do and what I could not do, where I could go and where I could not go. He was making sure I would not violate any of the taboos of the annual sacred event. This adventure took place in the early 1930's, when the rules were stricter than now, and when the Seminole were even more wary-eyed with suspicion and distrust. Since then I have never been quite so uneasy. But the interest that was behind that first step across the line into Seminole country has con- tinued to grow during a quarter-century of contact with the tribe. Two hundred years ago there were no Sem inole; there were only groups of Indians, mostly Creeks or relatives of the Creeks, who moved into the Spanish territory of Florida to get away from the white settlers of Georgia and South Carolina. They were the wild Indians, the ones who wouldn't be tamed. Today the Seminole are still, in name and fact, "wild" Indians, the last of that once plentiful category in the United States. Years ago I said something to Sam Tommy about Seminole meaning "runaway." "No!" he said emphatically. "Deer, se-mi no-lee; panther, se-mi-no -lee. That mean 'wild!' Es-te se-mi-no -lee, 'wild people!'" The Florida Seminole are a free people with whom the United States Government has had no treaty since the undefeated tribesmen disappeared in the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp more than a hundred years ago.* And they are a surprising people. In costume they are unique. Until recently, their religious rites were the least known of all Indian cere monies in the United States. Historically, they fought probably the bloodiest and most tenacious of all the Indian wars-and won it. People who have seen the Seminole in their brilliant costumes all over southern Florida are always astonished to learn that there are * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Haunting Heart of the Everglades," by Andrew H. Brown, February, 1948; and "South Florida's Amaz ing Everglades," by John O'Reilly, January, 1940. The Author For more than a quarter of a century, Louis Cap ron, of West Palm Beach, Florida, has been a friend and confidant of the Seminole Indians, and today he is recognized as one of the outstanding authorities on their customs and culture. The Smithsonian In stitution, in 1953, published his paper entitled The Medicine Bundles of the Florida Seminole and the Green Corn Dance. He is also the author of two books for young people, White Moccasins (Henry Holt, 1955) and The Gold Arrowhead (Howell, Soskin, 1948).