A Native American Success Story
By Adam Dudzinski
Throughout history indigenous people and natives have been oppressed, murdered, pushed off their territory, and mistreated. Aboriginals have not had the military strength or technology to stand up to colonizers. What makes the Seminole tribe in Florida so different? How did the Seminole tribe have had so much success throughout history economically, socially, and in dealing with colonization. The Seminole tribe are a very successful recognized tribe in the US: a country with one of the most horrific histories dealing with natives and aboriginals. The Seminole tribe does not seem to have many of the issues that other tribes have including health risks, unemployment, and territorial concerns. The Seminole tribe has been so successful throughout history socially and economically because of its refusal to conform to colonizers and creativity in finding ways to improve economically.
To fully understand how the Seminole tribe is so successful now you have to look at their history. The Seminole tribe’s history with colonizers is a lot different than most of the other tribes of the United States. The beginning stages of European colonization were not the most successful for the Seminole tribe. Spanish colonizers first reached Florida in the year 1513 and brought many diseases to the Natives like measles, smallpox, and the common cold. This, with the help of territorial conflicts between the settlers of multiple European countries, lead to the death of thousands of Native Floridians.[i] The Natives often had to be displaced because of the conflicts in their territories. The Native Floridians never gave up without a fights, this is why Spaniards gave them the nickname “cimarrones” which meant “free people.” [ii] They were given this nickname because they would never allow themselves to be controlled by colonizers. This goes to show that even though thousands of natives were dying, they never allowed themselves to be dominated. “Cimarrones” was taken into the Maskoki language, and by the nineteenth century Native Floridians were known as “Seminoles.” [iii] Natives from many tribes in Florida fled to the forests and prairies in order to not become extinct. The Seminoles had to do anything they could to not be controlled by the white man.
The Seminole tribe took a brutal hit when the US attempted to take control of florida during the early 1800s. The Seminoles rose up against US settlers and fought back. This lead to repression for the Seminoles by General Andrew Jackson. Thousands of of Native families were forced to migrate southward and joined those natives that fled from Spanish settlement in the forests of Southern Florida. That would not be the end of the Seminoles’ issues with the US government as Andrew Jackson set out to fix the “Indian Problem.” [iv] The US government was determined to take control of all of Florida. Andrew Jackson ordered the burning of Indian towns, and public executions of many Seminole leaders during the years 1814-1818.[v] This was known as the first Seminole war. The second Seminole war came in 1835. The US lost forty million dollars unsuccessfully attempting to remove the Seminole tribe from Florida. The US used both the Navy and Marines to try to remove the Seminoles, but the tribe was unrelenting in their commitment to not be defeated by the US government. Andrew Jackson’s final attempt to destroy the Seminoles was in 1856 where he put together a group of US military officers to exterminate the seminoles. The US military would once again fail miserably because the Seminoles knew how to survive in the conditions of the Florida forests, and used guerilla warfare tactics to defeat the US military again. [vi]
By the twentieth century, the Seminoles were left alone by the US government, but were still affected by its actions. American industrialism started having a negative effect on the territories where the Seminoles lived. Pollution threatened the extinction of the Seminole tribe. The US government began to notice, and wanted to help in a positive way. The US set aside over 80,000 acres of land for the Seminoles to live on. Very few Seminoles actually took that offer because they could not forget what the US government did to their ancestors. Their rejection of the offer was predictable. This lead to Congress passing the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934 allowing Native tribes to govern their own political affairs. The Seminole tribe did not sign the act until twenty three years later because of their understandable inability to trust the US government. [vii]
The Seminole tribe truly has grown since the days that they were fighting settlers and hiding in forests. The economic success of the tribe would have never been possible if they were so successful in defending themselves against American and Spanish colonization and settlers. The Seminoles were able to avoid extinction and remain united and are now one of the most economically successful tribes in the world. One of the most important factors on why the Seminole tribe is so successful because of their ability to be modernize with the rest of society. Instead of seeing the American dream as the enemy, the Seminole tribe set out to prove that even they can achieve it. The economic success for the Seminole tribe started with the opening of a smoke shop in 1977. Next the tribe opened up their first high-stake bingo hall.[viii] This lead to many legal challenges facing the crime that the tribe ultimately won.[ix] The tribes legal victories were the backbone for many other tribes across the US to opening up their own casinos. Now, because of the bravery of the Seminole tribe casinos are the largest source of income for Native Americans in the US. The Seminole tribe continued their growth with more expansion. The tribe has acquired two more reservations, opened a hotel, an Ahfachkee Indian school, and opened a Tribal museum.[x] The tribe continued to open more tourist attraction and smoke shops and continued to prosper economically.
The Seminole tribe has a record of handling certain situations and issues differently than other tribes across the US that also lead to their economic success. One of the most significant issues that the Seminole tribe took an interesting side on is the issue of using Native Americans as mascots. This issue ties in with being Native Americans as costumes as well. The majority of Native Americans believe that using the idea of a Native American as a mascot or a costume is wrong and disrespectful. The Seminole tribe actually opposes this view. Instead of viewing Florida State University’s use of a Seminole as their mascot as offensive or racist, the Seminole tribe supports it and helps Florida State University dress up their mascot to look more realistic and similar to how an actual seminole dresses. The N.C.A.A. actually banned the use of all Universities to use Native Americans as mascots in 2005. Florida State University’s President T.K. Wetherell explained his frustration with the ban. "That the N.C.A.A. would now label our close bond with the Seminole people as culturally 'hostile and abusive' is both outrageous and insulting," he explained.[xi] Because of the support of Seminole tribe Florida State University was able to make the university exempt from the ban. This shows the Seminole tribe’s ability to see a situation as a positive and as an opportunity when other Native Americans would protest and find it offensive. The Seminole tribe makes a lot of income from this because not only does the Tribe get paid for the endorsement from Florida State, but it also adds popularity to the Seminole tribe’s Okalee Indian Village which is where the Hard Rock Cafe is located.
Throughout history the Seminole tribe dealt with different situations in ways that most tribes would oppose or would not see as options. Whether it was standing up to colonizers or finding ways to be economically successful the Seminole tribe always thought outside the box and found ways to succeed in those times where other tribes failed. The tribe never gave into the threats of European colonizers and used guerilla warfare tactics to defeat the colonizers when they attacked. The Seminole tribe also used this creative thinking in their economic matters as well and made America’s first Indian Casino. These are the reasons why the Seminole tribe has been so successful growing as a community in the twentieth century. Even in social issues like Native American mascots the Seminole tribe is on the opposite spectrum from most tribes. The tribe does not view that as people mocking Native Americans. Instead, the Seminoles are excited by the idea of someone seeing their community as fierce, brave, and determined for victory. Those characteristics are exactly what the Seminole tribe has been throughout history. Because of the Seminole tribe’s ability to deal with both social and economic issues differently than most tribes is the reason why the tribe is arguably the most successful Native American tribe in the United States.
[i] “The Seminole Tribe of Florida” accessed on November 15th, 2014 http://www.semtribe.com/
[ii] “The Seminole Tribe of Florida” accessed on November 15th, 2014 http://www.semtribe.com/
[v] “Tribal Historic Preservation Office” accessed on November 15th, 2014 http://www.stofthpo.com/History-Seminole-Tribe-FL-Tribal-Historic-Preservation-Office.html
[vi] “The Seminole Tribe of Florida” accessed on November 15th, 2014 http://www.semtribe.com/
[viii] “Tribal Historic Preservation Office” accessed on November 15th, 2014 http://www.stofthpo.com/History-Seminole-Tribe-FL-Tribal-Historic-Preservation-Office.html
[ix] “The Seminole Tribe of Florida” accessed on November 15th, 2014 http://www.semtribe.com/
[x] “Seminole Tribe of Florida Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum” accessed on November 15th, 2014 http://www.ahtahthiki.com/Mission-Seminole-Tribe-FL-Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki-Museum.html
[xi] Robert Andrew Powell, “Florida State Can Keep Its Seminoles,” The New York Times, August 24th, 2005