Florida State University student Daniel Lee learned in fourth grade most of what he knew about the Seminole Indians, namesakes of his school’s athletic teams. It wasn’t much.
“You get the puddle deep in-depth analysis,” jokes Lee. “I want to know why we chose the Seminoles and how our university’s policies embody the spirit and strength of the Seminole culture.”
Lee, a music education major, had to wait until his senior year to find out. He’s one of 22 students enrolled in a Seminole history class that was launched this year partly in response to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s attempt to force Florida State to abandon its nickname and mascot, Chief Osceola.
The Seminole warrior, astride his horse, Renegade, hurls a flaming spear into the turf before every home football game.
Offering the course was one of several steps university and tribal officials had considered over the years to cement the Florida State-Seminole bond. They never did anything about it, though, until the NCAA last year deemed the nickname and mascot “hostile or abusive,” barring the university from using them when hosting championship events.
The NCAA withdrew its order after university president T.K. Wetherell threatened to sue and the Seminole Tribe of Florida reiterated its support for the school’s use of its name and symbols.
University administrators, jarred by the controversy, asked history department chairman Dr. Neil Jumonville to make the Seminole history course happen.
Jumonville and other faculty members met with three tribal representatives. The Seminoles urged that the class include discussion of other Southeastern tribes that predated theirs.
The Seminoles began in the 18th century as an amalgam of mostly Creek Indians, but the tribe also included members of other tribes and escaped Black slaves. Their common bond was fierce resistance to White domination.
The tribe’s name is said to be derived from the Spanish word “cimarrones” that variously has been translated to mean “free people,” “rebels,” “outlaws,” “fugitives,” “wild ones” and “unruly.”
The Seminoles pride themselves as being unconquered warriors, the only tribe that never signed a treaty with the U.S. government.
“The way they developed their identity and adapt a multitude of cultures, it’s a fascinating study,” says Chris Versen, a recent Florida State Ph.D. graduate who teaches the class.
Versen developed the curriculum from his own studies of American Indians, books about the Seminoles and consultations with other faculty and Tina Osceola, the tribe’s secretary and executive director of its museum.
Osceola spoke to the class last month.
“The students had a very good working knowledge of the material, which means that it’s working,” she says. “Their questions are informed questions.”
Jessica Watson, a sophomore who is majoring in social work, says she knew nothing of Seminole history before taking the course, although the tribe has a reservation and museum in her hometown of Hollywood, Fla. She decided to enroll after learning of her own Cherokee heritage.
Jumonville eventually wants to build upon the Seminole class and existing courses on Latin American history to create a comprehensive program covering the American Indian experience across the Western Hemisphere.
The Seminole tribe also wanted the class to trace their history to the present. The final chapter will include the tribe’s support of Florida State’s use of its name and symbols in the confrontation with the NCAA.
“This whole ordeal with the mascot, we were on common ground,” says Osceola, adding that the NCAA “did not understand or respect a federally recognized tribe’s sovereignty.”
Versen says he doesn’t want the mascot dispute to become “an emotional and pointless argument” in his class.
“At the beginning of the class I told them that regardless of whether or not we want to be, being at FSU identifies us as Seminoles, and clearly we’re not Seminoles in the same way that the tribal members are,” he says.
He plans to focus instead on why American Indians have symbolic meaning, what effect that has had on Florida State and the university’s need for close contact with the entire community it serves.
“I want them to think about it in that light,” Versen says, “and leave debates over mascots to others.”
— Associated Press
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