The Seminole Indians, one of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes, were forcibly removed to the Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) in the first half of the nineteenth century. This migration was part of the United States' general policy of Indian Removal, and it resulted from both a series of Seminole wars and several questionable treaties with the federal government.
The Seminole were originally part of the Creek, a loose confederacy of ethnic groups and tribes in southern Georgia, northern Florida, and Alabama. During the late eighteenth century some Lower Creek villages on the middle Chattahoochee River cut their political and social ties with their neighbors and moved south into northern Florida. There they became known as Seminole, perhaps a derivation of cimarron, the Spanish term for runaway. By the nineteenth century the Seminole were deemed a threat to the slaveholding culture of the American South and thus were designated for pacification and removal.
In three ensuing wars the Seminole resisted these efforts. Although they were not conquered during the Seminole Wars (1817-18, 1835-42, and 1855-58), thousands moved west in their aftermaths. Most removed as a result of the Treaty of Payne's Landing (1832). The first group of migrants, under the leadership of Chief Holahte Emathla, arrived in present Oklahoma in 1836. By 1839 most of the Seminole had been relocated west. By 1842 they numbered about 3,612 in the Indian Territory. There they eventually formed the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. A minority of the Seminole (between 350 and 500) remained in Florida. A separate Seminole Nation of Florida formed in 1957.
After their relocation to the Indian Territory the Seminole were initially confined to the Creek Nation. There the United States allowed them to have some self-governance, but only if they adhered to the general laws of the Creek. Frustrations with these terms and the general conditions in the region led two bands of Seminole under Wild Cat and John Horse to migrate to Mexico in 1849. In 1856, led by Chief John Jumper, the Seminole signed a treaty with the Creek and the U.S. government and established the Seminole Nation. Originally there were twenty-four towns in this territory, which is present Seminole County in Oklahoma. During the American Civil War of 1861-65, most Seminole sided with the Confederacy, and many dissident refugees fled to Kansas.
Under the Curtis Act of 1898 the Dawes Commission dissolved the Seminole government and divided its territory among approximately three thousand enrolled tribe members. The restrictions that accompanied allotment did little to protect their interests in the land. Through sale, often by fraudulent means, many Seminole families and individuals lost their land holdings. By 1920 only about 20 percent of the Seminole lands remained in Seminole hands. Of those who retained their property, a few became wealthy following the discovery of the Greater Seminole Oil Field in 1923. The policy of allotment was repealed by Congress in 1934. By the following year the Seminole had reestablished their government. In 1970 the tribal council was reorganized to adhere to its traditional structure.
Contemporary Seminole society contains fourteen matrilineal bands. Two of the bands are called "Freedmen bands," named after the former slaves who formed them. These bands structure politics and many aspects of daily life. Each elects a chair and vice chair, who run the monthly band meeting. In addition, each band elects two representatives to serve on the Seminole Nation General Council. This legislative body meets at least four times a year in the General Council House, which is located near Seminole. The government of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma is led by an elected chief and an assistant chief.
In 2004 there were approximately 13,675 enrolled members of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. Of those, roughly two thousand were African Americans. Only about twenty-seven hundred Oklahoma Seminole then lived outside of the state. In contrast, there were about four thousand enrolled members of the Seminole Nation of Florida. Both nations have become involved in gaming, with the Seminole of Florida becoming a vanguard for related issues of tribal sovereignty. Along with its gaming facilities, in the early twenty-first century the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma owned and operated three motor fuel outlets, three smoke shops, and one truck stop and offered its members various health programs, family services, and educational opportunities.
Within the Seminole Nation Christianity and traditional beliefs are both widely embraced. The Baptist and Methodist faiths are the most popular Christian sects. Many Seminole Christians frequently participate in the stomp dance, green corn ceremonies, traditional fasts, and other ancient rituals. Although English is the predominant language in Oklahoma, many of the Christian hymns are still sung in the traditional Muskogee language even.
Christianity and English speaking came through missionaries and the establishment of Anglo-American style schools in Indian Territory. The Oak Ridge Mission, a Presbyterian institution, was the first of the Seminole boarding schools. Established in 1848, it educated Seminole children until the Civil War. Several other schools, including the Wewoka Mission, the Mekusukey Academy for boys, and the Emahaka Mission, instituted cultural and religious changes in the 1880s and 1890s. These schools often prohibited students from speaking Muskogee or practicing traditional religious ceremonies.
Contemporary Seminole society remains geographically dispersed throughout Seminole County and Oklahoma. To counteract this, the Seminole of Oklahoma have an official newsletter, the Cokv Tvleme. In addition, many of the local newspapers in Seminole County are heavily influenced by their Seminole constituents. The Seminole of Florida similarly have a newspaper, the Seminole Tribune.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Grant Foreman, The Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1934). James H. Howard, Oklahoma Seminoles: Medicines, Magic, and Religion (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984). Daniel Littlefield, Africans and Seminoles: From Removal to Emancipation (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1977). Jack M. Schultz, The Seminole Baptist Churches of Oklahoma: Maintaining a Traditional Community (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999).
Andrew K. Frank
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