Sew Shall She Reap

Miccosukee designer Renee Osceola combines a flair for high fashion with an acute understanding of native tradition

In the early 1700s, Miccosukee- and Muskogee-speaking groups migrated into uninhabited parts of northern Florida. In the 1740s Spanish priests reported Creek raids as far south as present-day Fort Lauderdale. But mostly these Indians remained in the Panhandle until 1812. That was the year the notorious man on a horse, immortalized in patchwork more than a century later, first arrived at a Miccosukee village just south of the Georgia border. His name was Gen. Andrew Jackson.

While waging the Creek Wars in Georgia and Alabama, Jackson traveled briefly into Spanish-controlled Florida. "He just took a swing down there on his own, without authorization of the United States government," says James Goss, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Texas Tech University in Lubbock and an authority on Miccosukee origins. "And he burned Miccosukee villages. The biggest, at what is now known as Lake Miccosukee northeast of Tallahassee, had about 300 houses and over a thousand people. And this is what really started the Miccosukees moving southward." Various Muskogee-speaking bands, such as the Oconee, also fled south. As American troops and settlers moved southward into Florida they applied another misnomer -- Seminole -- to all Indians, including Miccosukees. The term, Goss explains, is a Muskogee word derived from the Spanish cimarrón, which means "wild one."

Throughout the first half of the Nineteenth Century, U.S. soldiers continued to slaughter and scatter Indians in Florida. After the First Seminole War in 1818, the United States began negotiations to acquire the area from Spain, a process that ended in 1821, when Jackson became the new territory's governor. During the Second Seminole War, waged from 1835 to 1842, thousands of troops and Indians were taken prisoner and killed. The Native Americans who weren't captured fled south into the Everglades. In May 1858, following the Third (and final) Seminole War, an Indian leader named Billy Bowlegs surrendered with 123 others and agreed to leave for a reservation in Oklahoma.

Renee Osceola in her workshop; the middle patchwork design (bottom photo) means lightning, and the other two are abstract
Steve Satterwhite
Renee Osceola in her workshop; the middle patchwork design (bottom photo) means lightning, and the other two are abstract
A long row to sew: It can take two weeks to complete one patchwork garment
Steve Satterwhite
A long row to sew: It can take two weeks to complete one patchwork garment

Then the U.S. Army gave up, leaving a few hundred Muskogee- and Miccosukee-speaking people in the swamps. Those who remained, and their progeny, would stay for nearly a century before dealing again with the white man's government. They survived by hunting deer, fishing, and harvesting cabbage and coontie. Extended families, identified by names such as Otter clan and Panther clan, lived in chickees, traveled by dugout canoe, and wore skirts made of hides and fabric acquired from settlers.

Women hand-stitched triangular and square pieces of cloth onto some garments for decoration, a technique called appliqué. But patchwork had not yet been developed. That would have to wait for the arrival of sewing machines, which were introduced to South Florida by white settlers in the 1890s. During the early Twentieth Century, native women acquired these new tools from trading posts and took them back to their camps, which remained in isolated Everglades hammocks. These seamstresses of the swamps first experimented by sewing contrasting horizontal bands of boldly colored cloth on skirts, dresses, and dresslike garments called big shirts, which were worn by men. "The creation of distinctive clothing appeared to coincide with the influx of nonnatives," observes David Blackard, director of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Seminole tribe's Big Cypress Reservation. (The term Seminole was applied to all South Florida Indians for much of the past century, regardless of whether their native tongue was Miccosukee or Muskogee.)

The first patchwork designs appeared in the 1920s, though historians have not pinpointed the exact identity or origin of the creators. "They sewed the strips together, cut them apart, repositioned them, and sewed them back together," Blackard explains. The new technique spawned entirely new symbols, which had no connection to the handmade decorations of the 1800s. "I just don't see a link," Blackard adds. "I'm almost certain that this was the order: A woman would be playing around on her sewing machine, making a new design, and all of a sudden somebody would say, 'Gee, that reminds me of telephone poles or trees.'"

Historians credit an Episcopal missionary named Harriet Bedell with supplying Miccosukee-speaking women along the Tamiami Trail with their first sewing machines. A native of Buffalo, New York, Bedell had spent sixteen years with Indians in Alaska before moving to the Sunshine State in 1932. She resurrected the moribund Glades Cross Mission in Everglades City, and soon hand-crank Singers were on their way to the Big Cypress woods.

"She thought it would be good for the women to start this cottage industry," says anthropologist James Goss.

"What Bedell did was provide them an outlet for their craft," adds Blackard, who says the women's main customers were white tourists.

Although the abstract symbols were ambiguous, the patchwork made a statement, Blackard says. When Indians in South Florida adopted patchwork, "they were being threatened, overwhelmed, by a dominant culture," he notes. Manual sewing machines continued to hum throughout the Everglades camps for the next three decades.

During Renee Osceola's lifetime, the Miccosukees have morphed from an isolated, disenfranchised clan of Miccosukee-speaking people into a federally recognized tribe. Her family history prior to the late 1800s is lost. Even in the early part of the Twentieth Century, it's somewhat hazy. At the time of her birth in 1956, Renee's extended family, part of the Otter clan, lived in a cluster of wooden huts along the Tamiami Trail, a few miles from Ochopee near Turner River. The camp's residents included four generations of family members. Renee's grandparents and great-grandparents had moved to the highway's edge sometime after its completion in 1927; they had scraped by for years in a hammock several miles to the north. In the Thirties Harriet Bedell visited the camp, which was not far from Everglades City. No one in the family attended school. That was forbidden.

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