Review of "The Enduring Seminoles"

The Enduring Seminoles by Patsy West explains the manner in which the Seminoles were able to economically reproduce following the seizure of much of their traditional lands, the collapse of Glades rookeries from over-hunting and the decline in demand for pelts caused by World War I. Their transition to traditional-craft produced goods, spectacular attractions such as dances, alligator wrestling and tribal ceremonies along with environmentally oriented tourism helped unify different clans and tribes traditionally separated into a single, evolving political unit. As a result of this unity it was possible for the Council, the ruling body of the Seminoles, to prevent individuals from signing away certain land rights, as other native peoples to the west had done, and they were able to consolidate their holding rights and capital to such a degree that they were able to financially flourish despite the Miccosukee and Seminoles pursuit of divergent paths – which was perhaps an inevitability considering their different tribal customs and language.

As the Seminoles still sought to trade within the cash nexus, new conditions of the late 19th and early 20th century meant that new forms of labor were required of them. While seasonal agricultural work was still an option pursued by some, the majority of the Seminoles instead accelerated the production of traditional goods for sale at their reservations that had a dual function as exhibition grounds. At these places simulacra of traditional ceremonies and life was on display for tourists paying to see the “unconquered Tribe” that after three wars with Uncle Sam would still make bellicose claims.

The completion of the Tamiami Trail in the late 1920s reinforced the identity creation that had previously been more regionalized while also causing disruption of the traditional methods of movement for the Seminoles. Because of the conditions which the road created, it also provided them with a means for expanding their economic reach and a setting in which concentrated habitation patterns helped lead them to gain an increased sense of identity. Whereas previously the Indian campgrounds were in competition with each other and organized by clan, with the only outsiders being “the husbands who came to live at the matrilocal residence,” the trail helped instill a Seminole consciousness (28). With so many settlements of various types within miles of each other organized around the exchange of money and people, now occurring at an increased pace, leaders within the tribes realized that their interests and capital were better used if pooled together and combined with a united political front. The Seminoles were thus able to exploit the lessons from other tribes in the Plains region that had been dispossessed by deferring to legal council in their actions and presuming sovereignty.

Despite this being a good source of income for them, their roles here were contrary to the ones conceptualized by many of the whites working for the New Deal government. Their productionist orientation saw this mode of economy both as demeaning and contrary to their goals reorganize the land for agriculture, and had the finances which were to support these efforts later subsumed to the wishes of the Seminoles (103).