Osceola At The 50-Yard Line

Nov 28, 2015
Originally published on November 28, 2015 4:35 pm

Seminole patchwork is not well-known outside the state of Florida. The Seams looks at culture through clothing — and within this hand-sewn and folded patchwork is the story of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Norman "Skeeter" Bowers, 48, has a closetful of brightly colored Seminole Indian patchwork — jackets, vests, shirts, tunics — the kind the Seminoles have made and worn for over a century. He's a senior member of the tribe and a special liaison to the Florida State Seminoles powerhouse football team. The tribe has a unique relationship with the university, one of the few colleges with approval to still use a Native American name for its athletic teams. It's a decades-long relationship of mutual respect that got started in 1947.

The Seminole tribe allows Florida State to use not just its name for the football team, but also the iconography of one of its most powerful leaders, Osceola. Before each game, a student reenacts a scene, dressed as Osceola in tribal patchwork. The "Osceola rider" enters the stadium atop a horse named Renegade, carrying a feathered, flaming spear which he throws at the 50 yard line as football fans cheer.

Skeeter Bowers is now the tribal liaison to the "Renegade team": "I know that that mascot that portrays Osceola, it's not Seminole, it's not Native. But that spirit, basically it's that Seminole spirit, that Unconquered spirit, you know, is all they try to capture. Osceola's name still lives."

Bowers points to a mural he had painted of Osceola over his garage at his home on the Brighton Reservation. Osecola is shown standing over a table and planting a knife into a peace treaty. It's a legend for which the warrior is famous.

"He was gonna fight to the death," Bowers says. "He wasn't going to leave Florida, this was his home. When they were having talks with the U.S. government, basically he pushed his way to the front and went to that table and drawed his knife out and planted it in a peace treaty."

The Seminole Tribe of Florida is called "The Unconquered," and that's because between 1817 and 1858, the Seminoles fought three wars with U.S. troops. They never lost those battles, which they fought to a draw, and never declared surrender. Osceola, a military leader within the tribe, was captured under a false flag of truce near St. Augustine in 1837. He was betrayed by a U.S. general, and died in prison in South Carolina several months after his capture, in 1838.

But by the latter half of the 19th century, the Seminoles had retreated back into the Everglades, vastly reduced in number. The majority of the tribe had long since been shipped off to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. The few who remained emerged at the end of the 19th century, doing what they could to survive in a new world. They catered to the tourist trade, making, selling and wearing their colorful patchwork. They wrestled alligator and restocked their cattle herds. Today, they own the Hard Rock Cafe franchise around the world. There are 4,000 tribal members on five reservations in South Florida, and a sixth closely related tribe of 600, the Miccosukee, thrives on a reservation near Miami.

Kyle Doney, 31, is an FSU alumnus. He's also a Seminole tribal member and deputy director of the Native Learning Center in Hollywood, Florida, where the tribe has its headquarters. For the homecoming game on Nov. 14, he participated in the "tradition of tribute" re-enactment. On that day, the "warrior Osceola" handed the spear to Doney, who plunged it into the ground midfield before the game. Doney was dressed in a Seminole turban, breastplate and leggings. Like the "Osceola" student rider, his regalia was made for him by the tribe. He looked like he'd stepped out of the Everglades in the 19th century.

"It just kind of brings you back and [makes you] think about everything that has happened, the wars and battles," said Doney. "You know it's just that unconquered spirit that they had in them when they wore it. And just to wear that nowadays? I'm very proud and honored."

The NCAA tried to do away with Osceola and other Indian names in college sports 10 years ago. In response, the Seminole Tribe of Florida pushed back and passed a resolution supporting the use of the tribe's name and the Osceola re-enactor. Two years ago, James Billie, the tribe's chairman, defended the use of the tradition in an editorial he wrote for the tribe's newspaper, The Seminole Tribune.

Last year, the tribe authorized Nike to print its symbols on FSU's football jersey. The tribe receives no compensation for this, but a spokesman for the tribe says it's a win-win situation that goes well beyond the football field. For example, FSU offers scholarships to Seminole students, honorary doctorates to distinguished members of the tribe and cultural exchanges between the tribe and the school. The school also says it tries to actively recruit Seminole students.

Todd Van Horne oversaw that project for Nike. Nike incorporated the symbols for Fire, Arrow, and Man on Horse onto the jersey. "We worked with the Seminole Tribe on the symbolism, so when you bring those things together, it replicates the storytelling mechanism of their pre-game ritual of Osceola coming out on the horse and planting the flaming spear at mid-field."

Not all members of the tribe are 100 percent on-board with this appropriation. Moses Jumper is a 65-year-old tribal elder. He explains, "We have some people in the tribe that thinks we ought to do away with the thing," he said, of the "Osceola" character. "And we have some that are trying to make relations work."

As a former athletic director for the tribe, Moses Jumper would like to see more Seminole athletes — FSU has just one Seminole player on the football team. And this year, he brought a group of Seminole horseback riders to the homecoming parade for the first time. And he did it in part because of his respect for one man, Allen Durham.

Durham's family started the "Osceola" tradition back in the late 1970's. He played "Osceola" himself, years ago. It's an honor for students to do so. Before the game, Durham gathered a small group together and invited Moses Jumper to speak.

"Moses has been so helpful with us. And we can't thank you enough for everything you do to help us make this traditional tribute as accurate as we can. And as is tradition with the Renegade team, we always come in with hands on top of each other and have our team shout before we take the field. And we would love it if you'd be our first hand today. Team on three, okay? One, two, three, TEAM!"

And then the "war drums" sounded, and Osceola, in full regalia, rode out on his horse, Renegade. The horse reared, and the warrior threw his flaming spear. Seminole tribe members paraded out on the field wearing patchwork in a riot of color. The crowd, including some of the tribe, sang the chant. For Skeeter Bowers, it's love.

"The band kicks right into the war chant. And as the band kicks into the war chant you got 85,000 people doing the chop and going, 'oh, oh-o-oh, oh,' and that goes right through my body. That never gets old."

And the Florida State Seminoles were unconquered, defeating North Carolina State 34 to 17. Tonight they face their fiercest rival, the University of Florida Gators.

Reporting for this story comes in part from the Florida Humanities Council and Florida Cultural Resources, Tarpon Springs.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you're one of the people who's ever lined up for a new sneaker release or to be the first to buy a budget-friendly item from a hot designer, then you know that clothes aren't something to cover the body. They're often so much more. They're about how we see ourselves and want to be seen in the world. That's the philosophy behind The Seams, a podcast host by Jacki Lyden that looks at fashion as culture. Lately, she's been spending time with the Seminole tribes of Florida and learning about their distinctive patchwork, which many men, women and children wear every day. And she has a story about how Florida State's sports teams have embraced the Seminoles and their style. Welcome, Jacki, thanks for coming.

JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: It's great to be here, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: So you've been in Florida, spending time with the Seminoles and learning more about the traditional Seminole patchwork craft. Tell us a little bit about that.

LYDEN: Well, anyone who's ever seen it would never forget it. It's distinctive and eye-catching. And in this sense, patchwork is something that you rip or fold over and you make a small symbol, a traditional symbol. You repeat it in the pattern. It's dazzling, and only the Seminole tribe of Florida and the Seminole Nation out in Oklahoma wear this. But the Seminole tribe of Florida, we're talking about a small tribe, Michel, about 4,000 people. They regard themselves as the unconquered - that's because they were never defeated by U.S. troops. They fought them to a draw. And just a fact - they own the international Hard Rock Cafe franchise.

MARTIN: OK (laughter) nice to know. So now, you've got a story for us from Florida State University, where the final football game of the regular season is tonight. And many people who have watched these games will have seen a student portraying a Seminole leader named Osceola. Now, tell us a little bit about that.

LYDEN: Well, it's a tradition that has happened at every home game since 1978. Just before kickoff, Osceola canters in bareback on an Appaloosa called Renegade. He brandishes his flaming feathered spear, throw it towards the 50-yard line. This is called the Tradition of Tribute. Everybody chants, and we're going to start our story, Michel, with a super fan, Norman Skeeter Bowers. He's a member of the Snake Clan, and a senior member of the tribe.

NORMAN SKEETER BOWERS: The necklace he has on, them are, like, sort of British.

LYDEN: Skeeter Bower's house on the Brighton Reservation is a shrine to the Seminole leader, Osceola. There are pictures of him everywhere.

BOWERS: And then you see the headpiece he's got on - just like a turban but with the feathers - the flumes from, like an egret.

LYDEN: A huge mural painted above the garage door shows a militant Osceola, the Seminole leader standing knife in hand. It illustrates Osceola's greatest legend, which dates back to the Seminole wars of the early 1800s.

BOWERS: He was going to fight to the death. He wasn't going to leave Florida. This was his home. When they were having talks with the U.S. government, basically he pushed his way to the front and went to that table and drew his knife out and planted it in a peace treaty.

LYDEN: The real Osceola was betrayed in 1837 in a false truce offered by a U.S. general. He died in prison in South Carolina. Skeeter, who's 48 years old, personally worked with Florida State University to build bridges between team and tribe.

BOWERS: I know that that mascot that portrays Osceola is not Seminole, it's not native. But that spirit - basically, it's that Seminole spirit, that unconquered spirit, you know, is all they're trying to capture. Osceola's name still lives.

LYDEN: FSU tries to depict Osceola as authentically as possible. His regalia is hand-sewn by members of the tribe. Modern-day patchwork is bold and eye-catching. Skeeter Bowers has a closet full of patchwork and wore a patchwork shirt to the homecoming parade.

At the homecoming game on November 14, the tribe turned out in force. They get special honors, like being on the field at the 50-yard line. Tribal member Kyle Doney is a 31-year-old FSU alumnus. He volunteered for the Osceola re-enactment at the game, wearing a turban, breastplate, leggings and long shirt, looking like he'd just stepped out of the Everglades in the 19th century.

KYLE DONEY: It just kind of brings you back and think about everything that has happened - the wars and battles - and, you know, it's just that unconquered spirit that they had in them when they wore it. And just to wear that nowadays, it's just - I'm just very proud and honored.

LYDEN: The NCAA tried to do away with Osceola and other Indian names in college sports 10 years ago. In response, the Seminole Tribe of Florida pushed back and passed a resolution supporting the use of the tribe's name and the Osceola re-enactor. Two years ago, James Billie, the tribe's chairman, defended the use of the rider in an editorial he wrote for the Seminal Tribune. Last year, the tribe authorized Nike to print its symbols on FSU's football jersey. The tribe receives no compensation for this. But a spokesman for the tribe says it's a win-win situation that goes well beyond the football field. Todd Van Horne oversaw that project for Nike. Nike incorporated the symbols for Fire, Arrow and Man on Horse onto the jersey.

TODD VAN HORNE: We worked with the Seminole Tribe on the symbolism, so when you bring those things together, it replicates the storytelling mechanism of their pregame ritual of Osceola coming out on the horse and planting the flaming spear at midfield.

LYDEN: Not all members of the tribe are 100 percent onboard with this appropriation. Moses Jumper is a 65-year-old tribal elder.

MOSES JUMPER: We have some people in the tribe that think that yeah, you know, they ought to do away with the thing. And then you've got some that are trying to make relations work. So...

LYDEN: As a former athletic director for the tribe, he'd like to see more Seminole athletes. FSU has just one Seminole player on the football team. Moses Jumper did bring a group of horseback riders to the homecoming parade for the first time in part because of one man, Allen Durham. Durham's family started the Osceola tradition back in the late '70s. Before the game, he gathered a small group together and invited Moses Jumper to speak.

ALLEN DURHAM: Moses has been so helpful with us, and we can't thank you enough for everything that you do to help us make this traditional tribute as accurate as we can. And this tradition with the Renegade team, you know, we always come in together with our hands on top of each other and have our team shout before we take the field. And we would love it if you would be our first hand today.

JUMPER: All right.

DURHAM: Team on three. One, two, three...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Shouting) Team.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Osceola, in full regalia, rode out on his horse, Renegade, brandishing his flaming spear. Seminole tribe members paraded out on the field in a riot of color. The crowd, including some of the tribe, sang the chant. For Skeeter Bowers, it's love.

BOWERS: The band kicks right into the war chant. And they kick into the war chant. You've got 85,000 people doing the chop.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLE CHANT)

BOWERS: And the (chanting) oh, oh-o-oh, oh - I mean, I think about when you're in that stadium, I mean, because I'm on the field, and that goes right through my body. And to me, that never gets old.

LYDEN: Best of all, the Florida State Seminoles were unconquered, defeating North Carolina State 34 to 17. Tonight, they face their fiercest rival, University of Florida Gators.

MARTIN: OK, Jacki, thank you for that. So, you know, we hear that Florida State has embraced the Seminoles, and the Seminoles have embraced Florida State. But, you know, elsewhere this has become a very controversial issue, as you know, not just, you know, with college teams as well as, you know, professional teams

LYDEN: Obviously, it's very controversial with the NFL and the Washington team. And there are two other colleges who have approval to use Indian names, and a fourth I think is in court. This is a unique situation.

MARTIN: Well, so thanks for bringing us this story. This is actually the first of a series of stories you're going to bring us over the next couple of months about the Seminoles. Give us a little bit of a taste of what we're going to be hearing in the next couple months.

LYDEN: The day after Christmas, we'll have a story about the Princess Pageant, which celebrates a female ambassador to the tribe.

MARTIN: All right, looking forward to that. I've been speaking with Jacki Lyden. She's host of the podcast The Seams. And I want to mention that the Florida Humanities Council provided some support for her reporting on this project. Jacki thanks so much and looking forward to hearing more from you.

LYDEN: Thanks for having me here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.