My Introduction to the Seminole Tribe, Past and Present
The Chalet Suzanne
I became acquainted with Mike Osceola and his partner Brian during the final days of the Chalet Suzanne, a Restaurant and Inn founded in 1931 by Bertha Hinshaw. Mike and Brian were patrons of the Chalet for over 27 years and I’m related to the Hinshaw clan on my father’s side, so we were all there to close the old girl down. Her wake included a string of nights in the Little Swedish Bar with family and close friends. You can only squeeze about 15 people into the small sunken room, so it was pretty hard for the tall blonde and the guy with the Mohawk to miss each other.
I told my cousins how handsome I thought Osceola was and that he would make a fantastic portrait subject, so while he was away one of them broached the question to Brian, who thought flattery would be the most likely way to convince him. Osceola returned and we spoke briefly about the possibility of me painting his portrait, but he was keeping quiet and noncommittal until we discovered that we had a mutual acquaintance in Pedro Zepeda, a master of traditional Seminole arts. I took ceramics with Pedro in college, and he is well known amongst the Seminoles because he is such a force in preserving traditional crafts like canoe making. I mentioned that I’d been trying to catch up with Pedro at reenactments with the thought of doing his portrait. At that point Osceola grew about 4 inches taller and declared that I must do HIS portrait. Thank Goodness!
The Great Osceola
Mike Osceola’s 5th or 6th Great Grandfather was the famous leader of the Second Seminole War Asi-Yahola or Osceola. His name Asi means Black Drink, a purgative used by the Seminoles during the green corn ceremony in the summer and Yahola is a call to the spirits (referring to the cry that followed the black drink). George Catlin painted a portrait of Osceola in 1838 while he was imprisoned in Fort Moultrie, SC. Osceola had been captured under a white flag and was transported to Ft. Moultrie where he died just days after his portrait was completed.
Mike really loved this portrait, and his features clearly resemble his ancestor’s so I wanted to make reference to this original portrait by using a similar background and pose. In preparation for painting Mike’s portrait I did this little study of Osceola, which I gave to Mike and Brian for their home.
A Preliminary Study
I did a second study of Mike in preparation for the painting, just to familiarize myself with his features and coloring. It also gave me a chance to think about how I was going to handle the patchwork.
Mike has beautiful features, but I wanted to make sure and show a hint of Seminole pout coming through the soft smile. I don’t know if this expression is cultural or muscular, but it’s one of Mike’s trademark looks so I really wanted to capture it in his portrait.
After completing the study I decided that Mike needed a little more space around him, which helps make the figure look more distinguished, and that I wanted his chin higher. I also felt he wasn't quite pouting yet, so that would need to be remedied in the next version.
I began the official portrait by making a grisaille underpainting so that I had a guide for the position and size of the main components of the painting.
Next I worked on the face, shirt, and gorget.
The Seminole Gorget
Mike had this gorget made in the same style as Osceola wore in his portrait. Gorgets hearken back to the days of armor, but later on became a decorative component of soldiers’ dress. It is likely that the first Seminole gorgets were given to them by the English, but later they made them out of coin silver for themselves.
The top shows a chickee flanked by otters, the middle is Osceola in profile, and the bottom is a decorative turquoise piece. Mike chose the top symbols because his clan is "Big Town" symbolized by the chickee, and he is uncle to the otter clan. Below the gorget he wore a sheer black scarf, but the portrait ended up so dark in that area that you can’t really see it.
I learned that Seminole dress was designed with the idea of keeping mosquitoes out, so it’s high around the neck and long in all directions.
A Coat of Many Colors - Cherished Seminole Patchwork
Mike is a patchwork collector and a vendor of modern patchwork, so it was important to show off the workmanship (or rather workwomanship) that went into his jacket. This jacket is vintage, a gift from his friend Deborah Wessel. The patterns have different names and significance. The two more obvious patterns on Mikes jacket are fire and water.
I must say the squiggly ric rac was not my favorite thing to paint, and I painted 19 rows of ric rac on this particular jacket in 5 different colors, so it was intense.
More About the Man
Larry Mike Osceola II is a cultural liason for the tribe and custodian of Seminole and Miccosukee items, with a particular interest in patchwork. He is on the Fort Lauderdale Historic Society Board of Trustees, an active member of the Bonnet and Stranahan Houses and most recently a participant in the Seminole Girl statue project. Mike is also an Army veteran.
Mike's father Larry Mike Osceola (aka Big Mike) was very important during the official formation of the tribe. Big Mike went to Miami High School and went on to work outside village attractions including Eastern Airlines. Big Mike was a founder and attended meetings in Washington DC during the 50's where he helped bring about formation of the tribe. In 1957 he sat on the Constitutional Committee that constructed and ratified the Corporate Charter. He was also on the council serving as Vice Chairman until 1963. So in addition to being able to wrestle alligators, and run businesses he could hold his own in a meeting.
More about the first Osceola and the Seminole Tribe
Sometime in the 1770's all indian's in Florida came to be known as Seminoles, which means "wild people" or "runaway." The Seminoles weren't really all of one tribe, but the government sort of bulked them all together because they were all in South Florida. Miami Seminoles speak Miccosukee, whereas Brighton Seminoles speak Creek.
There were three Seminole Wars, the first was sparked by Andrew Jackson when he invaded what was then Spanish territory, the second because of the Indian Removal Act (this is the one during which the US Government took Osceola as a prisoner under a white flag), and by the official end of the third war in 1858 there were only 200-300 Seminoles left hiding in the Florida swamplands (Certainly there were twice as many Florida Panthers in the state as there were Seminoles). There they remained, rarely seen, until decades later with the advent of trading posts in south Florida.
Interesting Facts About the Seminoles
- Osceola was a “War Boss” not a chief. A chief isn't what you think it is. Chiefdom is not typically hereditary, and a chief is more like an ambassador. In order to earn this position they must be important, but "chief" mostly designates that they are someone who deals with outsiders for the tribe or clan. The tribe has it's own internal power structure.
- Although we closely associate the Seminoles with the Everglades, Osceola’s town was in Ocala.
- There are eight “clans” within the Seminole tribe: Otter, Bird, Bear, Snake, Deer, Wind, Big Town, and Panther. Your clan is determined by your mother.
- During the formation of the tribe in the 1950’s the Seminoles raised money through rodeo shows to finance their own travel to Washington DC during the negotiations.
- Seminoles were not Christians until the 1920's.
- Osceola's close friend was a white man names Lt. John Graham.
The Role of Modern Seminoles
I asked Mike to tell me a little about the role of the approximately 4,000 modern Seminoles living in Florida, because its not all about the FSU mascot or the Hard Rock Casino. His answer was that they are "striving to maintain cultural identity in spite of socio-economic conditions." That sounds like a line, but I learned during my trip to Big Cypress near Clewiston that it's the truth. It was a town of modest homes, the majority had a few modern toys, maybe an RTV and a shiny truck, and then there was always a Chickee.
All of these people had chosen to erect a traditional palm roofed shelter in their back yards, and there were huge ones in the common areas. So it's real. They are here to stay, and I feel like they have a lot to offer, so I look forward to a continued Seminole presence in Florida.