Sew Shall She Reap

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

Renee's mother, Nellie Billie, was born in the Thirties (no one knows the date) and, unlike her ancestors, mingled with whites. As a sixteen-year-old girl in the early Fifties, Nellie performed at the Hialeah racetrack, parading around in an Indian show for tourists. "They were told to roam in that ring," Renee recalls disdainfully. "Everybody was dressed in their colorful clothing, and that's what the tourists liked to see." A few years later, Nellie married Howard Billie, a neighbor from a nearby camp, and the couple made their home at the Turner River site. They set up on the roadside and earned money selling crafts to tourists who stopped by. Howard peddled his cypress woodcarvings; Nellie sold patchwork.

As was customary among the Miccosukee, when the time came for Renee's birth, Nellie walked away from the family camp and into a nearby thicket of trees. She was accompanied by her husband's grandfather, Ingraham Billie, who was a medicine man. Renee emerged from the womb with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. "They thought I was dead but my great-grandfather revived me," Renee says. "My mother thought I was pretty much dead and gone. But he got me back." Renee's parents gave her a Miccosukee name that is pronounced OO-hen-a-HAY-eyeh. Her English appellation can be traced to a Frenchman called Rene, who sometimes visited the village to buy crafts. "Later on he would come visit me, but he was an old man and [eventually] he stopped coming."

In 1958, two years after Renee's birth, the U.S government recognized the Seminole Tribe of Indians of Florida. Dozens of Miccosukee- and Muskogee-speaking Indians left their Everglades camps and moved to reservations in Broward County, where they received federal funding for housing, food, health care, and other services. The Seminole Tribe also received restitution for lost land. But some Miccosukee-speakers stayed away. "They wanted to keep their identity separate," Goss notes. "They didn't want payment for the land they had lost. They wanted their land back."

Renee's couture has taken orthodontist Charles Pinkerton (center) and his Miami Lakes Lions Club by storm
Steve Satterwhite
Renee's couture has taken orthodontist Charles Pinkerton (center) and his Miami Lakes Lions Club by storm

Nellie and Howard Billie were among those who remained in the Everglades. Nellie gave birth to four more children in the ensuing years. Renee's sister, Minnie, also was born in the wild. Doctors delivered three boys in hospitals. "I don't know why my mom insisted on having me and my sister in the woods," Renee admits.

In 1962, after several years of negotiations, the U.S. Department of the Interior agreed to recognize a group of roughly 80 Miccosukee-speakers led by Buffalo Tiger. They named themselves the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida and acquired a 50-year lease on a 333-acre swath of land along the northern boundary of Everglades National Park. A year later the Billie clan relocated to a camp on the reservation, about twenty miles east of their Turner River village. They built new huts on the north side of the Tamiami Trail, across from the present location of Renee's shop.

Oblivious to all these political machinations, little Renee watched her father carve wood and her mother and grandmother make patchwork. By the time Renee was nine years old, she had learned to sew on a Singer hand-crank machine. A few years later, when an aunt loaned her an electric machine, she was hooked.

As Renee grew up, the Miccosukees became more powerful and took on a more distinct identity. Under Tiger's leadership the tribe formed the Miccosukee Corporation in 1971. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) handed over control of its social service programs and soon a clinic and police and fire departments were established.

Like most children on the reservation, Renee did not attend elementary or high school. She began working as a clerk in the tribe's administrative offices in 1973. In 1976 she departed from tribal custom and earned a high school equivalency degree from a program at the University of Miami. She lived on campus for a year with minority students, some of whom were originally from Alabama and Georgia. "The only thing we had in common was we were dropouts," she says with a chuckle. In 1980 she gave birth to her son Houston. She was not married to his father, a chickee builder, and the courtship soon ended. "They say your first born changes you, right? Well, Houston changed his father," Renee remarks with a loud laugh. Throughout the Eighties and early Nineties she continued doing clerical work, mostly in the tribe's health department. She also taught the Miccosukee language to the tribe's increasingly Americanized children.

Houston attended a public high school in Everglades City. To celebrate an Indian holiday one year, Houston decided to wear traditional garb to class. "The men's early garments were like sheaths, and they would have different colors," explains Renee. "So Houston wore that to school, and the principal called me and said, 'You're son is wearing a skirt!'" she recalls, faking a shriek. "I said, 'It is a skirt but it's appropriate for men to wear it, because that's what they used to wear back in the old days. And he dresses like that whenever he feels like it and I don't see anything wrong with that.' So the principal was kind of mad at me." Houston, a calm young man whose black hair hangs down to the small of his back, smiles about the incident. "I was a good student, but they didn't want to let me do that," he says. "The teachers thought I was like a cross-dressing, transvestite person. Some of them said I was a devil worshipper." After graduating Houston enrolled at the University of Miami for a year but then decided to take a break from academics. He works in the Miccosukee resort's marketing department.

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