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Seminole Ornamental Arts

Native American Nations | Seminole Indians of Florida

                     

In my search for evidence of the working of the art instinct proper, i.e., in ornamental or fine art, I found but little to add to what has been already said. I saw but few attempts at ornamentation beyond those made on the person and on clothing. Houses, canoes, utensils, implements, weapons, were almost all without carving or painting. In fact, the only carving I noticed in the Indian country was on a pine tree near Myers. It was a rude outline of the head of a bull. The local report is that when the white men began to send their cattle south of the Caloosahatchie River the Indians marked this tree with this sign. The only painting I saw was the rude representation of a man, upon the shaft of one of the pestles used at the Koonti log at Horse Creek. It was made by one of the girls for her own amusement.

I have already spoken of the art of making silver ornaments.

Music

Music, as far as I could discover, is but little in use among the Seminole. Their festivals are few; so few that the songs of the fathers have mostly been forgotten. They have songs for the Green Corn Dance; they have lullabys; and there is a doleful song they sing in praise of drink, which is occasionally heard when the white man has sold Indians whisky on coming to town. Knowing the motive of the song, I thought the tune stupid and maudlin. Without pretending to reproduce it exactly, I remember it as something like this:

Song of Drink Midi File (may require adjustments to browser)

I give a free translation of the Indian words and an approximation to the tune. The last note in this, as in the lullaby I noted above, is unmusical and staccato.

Religion

I could learn but little of the religious faiths and practices existing among the Florida Indians. I was struck, however, in making my investigations, by the evident influence Christian teaching has had upon the native faith. How far it has penetrated the inherited thought of the Indian I do not know. But, in talking with Ko-nip-ha-tco, he told me that his people believe that the Koonti root was a gift from God; that long ago the “Great Spirit” sent Jesus Christ to the earth with the precious plant, and that Jesus had descended upon the world at Cape Florida and there given the Koonti to “the red men.” In reference to this tradition, it is to be remembered that during the seventeenth century the Spaniards had vigorous missions among the Florida Indians. Doubtless it was from these that certain Christian names and beliefs now traceable among the Seminole found way into the savage creed and ritual.

I attempted several times to obtain from my interpreter a statement of the religious beliefs he had received from his people. I cannot affirm with confidence that success followed my efforts.

He told me that his people believe in a “Great Spirit,” whose name is His-a-kit-a-mis-i. This word, I have good reason to believe, means “the master of breath.” The Seminole for breath is His-a-kit-a.

I cannot be sure that Ko-nip-ha-tco knew anything of what I meant by the word “spirit.” I tried to convey my meaning to him, but I think I failed. He told me that the place to which Indians go after death is called “Po-ya-fi-tsa” and that the Indians who have died are the Pi-ya-fits-ul-ki, or “the people of Po-ya-fi-tsa.” That was our nearest understanding of the word “spirit” or “soul.”

Mortuary Customs

As the Seminole mortuary customs are closely connected with their religious beliefs, it will be in place to record here what I learned of them. The description refers particularly to the death and burial of a child.


Fig. 75. Seminole bier

The preparation for burial began as soon as death had taken place. The body was clad in a new shirt, a new handkerchief being tied about the neck and another around the head. A spot of red paint was placed on the right cheek and one of black upon the left. The body was laid face upwards. In the left hand, together with a bit of burnt wood, a small bow about twelve inches in length was placed, the hand lying naturally over the middle of the body. Across the bow, held by the right hand, was laid an arrow, slightly drawn. During these preparations, the women loudly lamented, with hair disheveled. At the same time some men had selected a place for the burial and made the grave in this manner: Two palmetto logs of proper size were split. The four pieces were then firmly placed on edge, in the shape of an oblong box, lengthwise east and west. In this box a floor was laid, and over this a blanket was spread. Two men, at next sunrise, carried the body from the camp to the place of burial, the body being suspended at feet thighs, back, and neck from a long pole (Fig. 75). The relatives followed. In the grave, which is called “To-hop-ki”—a word used by the Seminole for “stockade,” or “fort,” also, the body was then laid the feet to the east. A blanket was then carefully wrapped around the body. Over this palmetto leaves were placed and the grave was tightly closed by a covering of logs. Above the box a roof was then built. Sticks, in the form of an X, were driven into the earth across the overlying logs; these were connected by a pole, and this structure was covered thickly with palmetto leaves. (Fig. 76.)


Fig. 76. Seminole grave

The bearers of the body then made a large fire at each end of the “To-hop-ki.” With this the ceremony at the grave ended and all returned to the camp. During that day and for three days thereafter the relatives remained at home and refrained from work. The fires at the grave were renewed at sunset by those who had made them, and after nightfall torches were there waved in the air, that “the bad birds of the night” might not get at the Indian lying in his grave. The renewal of the fires and waving of the torches were repeated three days. The fourth day the fires were allowed to die out. Throughout the camp “medicine” had been sprinkled at sunset for three days. On the fourth day it was said that the Indian “had gone.” From that time the mourning ceased and the members of the family returned to their usual occupations.

The interpretation of the ceremonies just mentioned, as given me, is this: The Indian was laid in his grave to remain there, it was believed, only until the fourth day. The fires at head and feet, as well as the waving of the torches, were to guard him from the approach of “evil birds” who would harm him. His feet were placed toward the east, that when he arose to go to the skies he might go straight to the sky path, which commenced at the place of the sun’s rising; that were he laid with the feet in any other direction he would not know when he rose what path to take and he would be lost in the darkness. He had with him his bow and arrow, that he might procure food on his way. The piece of burnt wood in his hand was to protect him from the “bad birds” while he was on his skyward journey. These “evil birds” are called Ta-lak-i-çlak-o. The last rite paid to the Seminole dead is at the end of four moons. At that time the relatives go to the To-hop-ki and cut from around it the overgrowing grass. A widow lives with disheveled hair for the first twelve moons of her widowhood.

Green Corn Dance

The one institution at present in which the religious beliefs of the Seminole find special expression is what is called the “Green Corn Dance.” It is the occasion for an annual purification and rejoicing. I could get no satisfactory description of the festival. No white man, so I was told, has seen it, and the only Indian I met who could in any manner speak English, made but an imperfect attempt to describe it. In fact, he seemed unwilling to talk about it. He told me, however, that as the season for holding the festival approaches the medicine men assemble and, through their ceremonies, decide when it shall take place, and, if I caught his meaning, determine also how long the dance shall continue. Others, on the contrary, told me that the dance is always continued for four days.

Fifteen days previous to the festival heralds are sent from the lodge of the medicine men to give notice to all the camps of the day when the dance will commence. Small sticks are thereupon hung up in each camp, representing the number of days between that date and the day of the beginning of the dance. With the passing of each day one of these sticks is thrown away. The day the last one is cast aside the families go to the appointed place. At the dancing ground they find the selected space arranged as in the accompanying diagram (Fig. 77).

The evening of the first day the ceremony of taking the “Black Drink,” Pa-sa-is-kit-a, is endured. This drink was described to me as having both a nauseating smell and taste. It is probably a mixture similar to that used by the Creek in the last century at a like ceremony. It acts as both an emetic and a cathartic, and it is believed among the Indians that unless one drinks of it he will be sick at some time in the year, and besides that he cannot safely eat of the green corn of the feast. During the drinking the dance begins and proceeds; in it the medicine men join.

At that time the Medicine Song is sung. My Indian would not repeat this song for me. He declared that any one who sings the Medicine Song, except at the Green Corn Dance or as a medicine man, will certainly meet with some harm. That night, after the “Black Drink” has had its effect, the Indians sleep. The next morning they eat of the green corn. The day following is one of fasting, but the next day is one of great feasting, “Hom-pi-ta-çlak-o,” in which “Indian eat all time,” “Hom-pis-yak-i-ta.”


Fig. 77. Green Corn Dance.

Use of Medicines

Concerning the use by the Indians of medicine against sickness, I learned only that they are in the habit of taking various herbs for their ailments. What part incantation or sorcery plays in the healing of disease I do not know. Nor did I learn what the Indians think of the origin and effects of dreams. Me-le told me that he knows of a plant the leaves of which, eaten, will cure the bite of a rattlesnake, and that he knows also of a plant which is an antidote to the noxious effects of the poison ivy or so-called poison oak.

General Observations

I close this chapter by putting upon record a few general observations, as an aid to future investigation into Seminole life.

Standard Of Value

The standard of value among the Florida Indians is now taken from the currency of the United States. The unit they seem to have adopted, at least at the Big Cypress Swamp settlement, is twenty-five cents, which they call “Kan-cat-ka-hum-kin” (literally, “one mark on the ground”). At Miami a trader keeps his accounts with the Indians in single marks or pencil strokes. For example, an Indian brings to him buck skins, for which the trader allows twelve “chalks.” The Indian, not wishing then to purchase anything, receives a piece of paper marked in this way:

“IIII—IIII—IIII.
J. W. E. owes Little Tiger $3.”

At his next visit the Indian may buy five “marks” worth of goods. The trader then takes the paper and returns it to Little Tiger changed as follows:

“IIII—III.
J. W. E. owes Little Tiger
$1.75.”

Thus the account is kept until all the “marks” are crossed off, when the trader takes the paper into his own possession. The value of the purchases made at Miami by the Indians, I was informed, is annually about $2,000. This is, however, an amount larger than would be the average for the rest of the tribe, for the Miami Indians do a considerable business in the barter and sale of ornamental plumage.

What the primitive standard of value among the Seminole was is suggested to me by their word for money, “Tcat-to Ko-na-wa.” “Ko-na-wa” means beads, and “Tcat-to,” while it is the name for iron and metal, is also the name for stone. “Tcat-to” probably originally meant stone. Tcat-to Ko-na-wa (i.e., stone beads) was, then, the primitive money. With “Hat-ki,” or white, added, the word means silver; with “La-ni,” or yellow, added, it means gold. For greenbacks they use the words “Nak-ho-tsi Tcat-to Ko-na-wa,” which is, literally, “paper stone beads.”

Their methods of measuring are now, probably, those of the white man. I questioned my respondent closely, but could gain no light upon the terms he used as equivalents for our measurements.

Divisions of Time

I also gained but little knowledge of their divisions of time. They have the year, the name for which is the same as that used for summer, and in their year are twelve months, designated, respectively:
 

1. Çla-futs-u-tsi, Little Winter.
2. Ho-ta-li-ha-si, Wind Moon.
3. Ho-ta-li-ha-si-çlak-o, Big Wind Moon.
4. Ki-ha-su-tsi, Little Mulberry Moon.
5. Ki-ha-si-çlat-o, Big Mulberry Moon
6. Ka-too-ha-si.
7. Hai-yu-tsi.
8. Hai-yu-tsi-çlak-o.
9. O-ta-wus-ku-tsi.
10. O-ta-wus-ka-çlak-o.
11. I-ho-li.
12. Çla-fo-çlak-o, Big Winter.

I suppose that the spelling of these words could be improved, but I reproduce them phonetically as nearly as I can, not making what to me would be desirable corrections. The months appear to be divided simply into days, and these are, in part at least, numbered by reference to successive positions of the moon at sunset. When I asked Täl-la-häs-ke how long he would stay at his present camp, he made reply by pointing, to the new moon in the west and sweeping his hand from west to east to where the moon would be when he should go home. He meant to answer, about ten days thence. The day is divided by terms descriptive of the positions of the sun in the sky from dawn to sunset.

Numeration

The Florida Indians can count, by their system, indefinitely. Their system of numeration is quinary, as will appear from the following list:
 

1. Hûm-kin.
2. Ho-ko-lin.
3. To-tei-nin.
4. Os-tin.
5. Tsaq-ke-pin.
6. I-pa-kin.
7. Ko-lo-pa-kin.
8. Tci-na-pa-kin
9. Os-ta-pa-kin.
10. Pa-lin.
11. Pa-lin-hûm-kin, i.e., ten one, &c.
20. Pa-li-ho-ko-lin, i.e., two tens.

As a guide towards a knowledge of the primitive manner of counting the method used by an old man in his intercourse with me will serve. He wished to count eight. He first placed the thumb of the right hand upon the little finger of the left, then the right forefinger upon the next left hand finger, then the thumb on the next finger, and the forefinger on the next, and then the thumb upon the thumb; leaving now the thumb of the right hand resting upon the thumb of the left, he counted the remaining numbers on the right hand, using for this purpose the fore and middle fingers of the left; finally he shut the fourth and little fingers of the right hand down upon its palm, and raising his hands, thumbs touching, the counted fingers outspread, he showed me eight as the number of horses of which I had made inquiry.

Sense of Color

Concerning the sense of color among these Indians, I found that my informant at least possessed it to only a very limited degree. Black and white were clear to his sight, and for these he had appropriate names Also for brown, which was to him a “yellow black,” and for gray, which was a “white black.” For some other colors his perception was distinct and the names he used proper. But a name for blue he applied to many other colors, shading from violet to green. A name for red followed a succession of colors all the way from scarlet to pink. A name for yellow he applied to dark orange and thence to a list of colors through to yellow’s lightest and most delicate tint. I thought that at one time I had found him making a clear distinction between green and blue, but as I examined further I was never certain that he would not exchange the names when asked about one or the other color.

Education

The feeling of the tribe is antagonistic to even such primary education as reading, writing, and calculation. About ten years ago an attempt, the only attempt in modern times, to establish schools among them was made by Rev. Mr. Frost, now at Myers, Fla. He did not succeed.

Slavery

By reference to the population table, it will be noticed that there are three negroes and seven persons of mixed breed among the Seminole. It has been said that these negroes were slaves and are still held as slaves by the Indians. I saw nothing and could not hear of anything to justify this statement. One Indian is, I know, married to a Negress, and the two Negresses in the tribe live apparently on terms of perfect equality with the other women. Me-le goes and comes as he sees fit. No one attempts to control his movements. It may be that long ago the Florida Indians held negroes as slaves, but my impression is to the contrary. The Florida Indians, I think, rather offered a place of refuge for fugitive bondmen and gradually made them members of their tribe.

Health

In the introduction to this report I said that the health of the Seminole is good. As confirming this statement, I found that the deaths during the past year had been very few. I had trustworthy information concerning the deaths of only four persons. One of these deaths was of an old woman, O-pa-ka, at the Fish Eating Creek settlement; another was of Täl-la-häs-ke’s wife, at Cat Fish Lake settlement; another was of a sister of Täl-la-häs-ke; and the last was of a child, at Cow Creek settlement. At the Big Cypress Swamp settlement I was assured that no deaths had occurred either there or at Miami during the year. On the contrary, however, I was told by some white people at Miami that several children had died at the Indian camp near there in the year past. Täl-la-häs-ke said to me, “Twenty moons ago, heap pickaninnies die!” And I was informed by others that about two years before there had been considerable fatality among children, as the consequence of a sort of epidemic at one of the northern camps. Admitting the correctness of these reports, I have no reason to modify my general statement that the health of the Seminole is good and that they are certainly increasing their number. Their appearance indicates excellent health and their environment is in their favor.


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The Seminole Indians of Florida, Clay MacCauley, 1664

Seminole Indians of Florida

 

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