Maitland Art Center: Meet the enigmatic, authentic Seminoles




The word is everywhere in


, from college jerseys to gambling casinos.

But the people and their history remain an enigma for most of us.

At his death in 1838, Seminole leader Osceola was the best-known American "Indian" in the world, but how many of us could speak with much knowledge about his life, or about the people he came from and the wars they fought?

When those three wars were over, only 300 or so Seminoles remained in Florida. The rest had died or been sent to the West on the "Trail of Tears."

'Fierce determination'

About 1790, naturalist

William Bartram

described them as a proud, resourceful people, presenting both a "striking picture of happiness" and a "fierce determination to rule their own land or die in the attempt."

Bartram's prophetic words are from the catalog for a fine exhibit at the

Maitland Art Center

that opens doors to the world of the Seminole.

Recently, I.S.K. "Keith" Reeves gave a tour of the exhibit to Lake Sybelia Elementary students and told them about the artifacts he and his wife, Sara, have collected for decades.

By the way, if you read the paper early (good for you) and can get moving, Reeves will be at the Maitland Art Center today at 1 p.m. for a gallery tour.

(There's also a tour Friday evening after a program with anthropologist Rosalyn Howard about the Black Seminoles. Fascinating subject.)

Not the first natives
The Seminoles

were not Florida's original native people, as Reeves told the attentive third-graders in teachers Mimi Sonnie and Kate Raleigh's classes at Lake Sybelia.

Although most of the exhibit deals with the years from 1820 to 1950, Reeves also showed the kids chisels and other tools going back to 12,000 B.C.

He explained that when people made pottery, it changed the kind of food they could cook and eat — resulting, in the case of the original Florida natives, in well-nourished folks who were well more than 6 feet tall at the time of Spanish exploration — in contrast to the puny Europeans, about a foot shorter.

But by the time the Creeks and other people who became the Seminoles migrated to Florida in the 1700s, those tall natives had vanished, mostly decimated by diseases from Europe to which they had no immunity.

Loyal friends

That meant that the Seminoles had the peninsula to themselves for a few decades, before U.S. settlers decided it looked pretty good to them, too, and also sought to capture the blacks who had fled south and joined the Indians.

One of the major battles the Seminoles had with

the U.S.

Army, Reeves said, is that they "would not give up their friends" — the blacks sought by slaveholders.

Indeed, perhaps the most astonishing artifact in the exhibit is a sash from the period of the last Seminole war, worn by a leader called Jumper in an 1852 daguerreotype that was long thought to be lost when Reeves obtained it from another collector. Together, the sash and the image show us clearly: These were real people, not storybook Indians.

Patchwork of history

Into the 20th century, women's traditional garb included beads, as many as 12 pounds of them, worn with the intricate, colorful patchwork designs that became the most recognized part of Seminole apparel.

Photos also show the turbans Seminole men wore until about 1910. They probably began with tartan fabric that native peoples got from Scottish traders in the 1700s, Reeves said.

The men would wrap the fabric around a knee to create the turban and would decorate it with egret feathers and other ornaments.

The exhibit includes the dolls that Seminoles made mostly to sell to tourists, a shaman's necklace made of alligator teeth and many other fascinating objects — but don't miss the photos, visual testimony of a people and a way of life that have vanished into Florida's past.

It's a "subtle history," as Reeves so wisely noted. Unlike the histories of states such as

New Mexico

, where native American heritage is much more visible, in Florida we need to dig a little deeper to know about our past, including the saga of the Seminoles.

'We Shall Remain'

On April 13, the PBS series

American Experience

is debuting a five-part series, "We Shall Remain."

Although it does not deal directly with the Seminoles, the April 27 segment, "Trail of Tears," offers excellent context about the U.S. policy of removal during the period of the Seminole Wars.

Joy Wallace Dickinson can be reached at

and by good, old-fashioned letter at the Orlando Sentinel, 633 N. Orange Ave.,


, FL 32801.