Sew Shall She Reap

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

During the Nineties Miccosukees increasingly interacted with the outside world. In 1990 the tribe opened a bingo hall near the northwest corner of Krome Avenue and Tamiami Trail. A few years later, Renee herself broke new ground, enrolling at Miami-Dade Community College. She first took courses toward a prelaw degree, then entered the clothing-design program. One female instructor was especially demanding. "She made a perfectionist out of me," Renee recalls, while ripping a strip of cloth. "The rest of the students wanted to be treated like babies. You know what I'm saying? They didn't want to earn their grades. And if she wants it a certain way, you do it or you don't pass. So I tried very hard.... That's where my precision cutting and exact measurements and all that came from. So that was fun for me. While everyone else was having a hard time, I was having a good time."

According to professor James Goss, Renee's education is rare among the Miccosukee. "That's unusual, especially for women," he says. "Traditionally men do most dealing with the outside world. The women are a couple of generations behind, even in learning English." Some have yet to master English, he adds, particularly those unaffiliated with the reservation.

Renee remembers fondly a monthlong European fashion tour she took with several classmates in 1992. They went to Paris and Milan. She witnessed a fashion show in London. "That was pretty dramatic for me, because I had never seen one," Renee says. They toured a shoe factory, a scarf factory, and even saw sheep grazing. She also toured the late Gianni Versace's mansion on Lake Como, in Italy.

Miccosukee chic: Renee's husband, William Osceola (left), and his cousin, Douglas McKinley Osceola, sport two of her custom-made jackets
Steve Satterwhite
Miccosukee chic: Renee's husband, William Osceola (left), and his cousin, Douglas McKinley Osceola, sport two of her custom-made jackets

A year later she married William Osceola, a Seminole member, at a corn dance festival, the tribe's most important annual celebration. Mingling between Seminoles and Miccosukees is common; many have friends and relatives on both reservations. Indeed about two-thirds of the 2500 Seminoles speak Miccosukee, including William and his parents, who once lived along the Tamiami Trail. William currently works as a liaison between the Seminole tribe and Indians living in isolated locations.

Although some Miccosukee and Seminole marriages are arranged, Renee's was not. But she followed the dictates of one nuptial tradition: She gave William an intricate patchwork jacket. To explain the custom, she cites part of a speech her son Houston wrote for a fashion show. "The mother told the daughter-in-law that upon marrying her son, she had to make him the most beautiful and exquisite jacket," she recites. "The mother told the daughter this was an age-old tradition and that all wives past and present do it for their husbands. So if she wanted to be a good wife, she had better keep up with tradition. So the daughter took upon herself the task of learning to sew. And when it came time for the marriage ceremony, she presented her husband with a gorgeous jacket. Yet looking back on this tradition, one wonders how it can be age-old when fabric and sewing were only introduced to our people near the turn of the century. Curious isn't it? So that's why some people like to call this story the mother-in-law yarn." A few years later, William lost the jacket on a trip to Las Vegas. "I told him the next time I make him a jacket, he's going to have to pay for it," Renee laments.

Renee began thinking about launching a patchwork company while she was studying fashion design. In April 1995 she submitted a proposal to the five-member Miccosukee Business Council. This group, which is led by chairman Billy Cypress, manages the tribe's enterprises. She set up the Indigenous Images shop with five new sewing machines in a small tribe-owned building on the reservation. The three-room structure, situated on a blocklong dirt street called Tiger Boulevard, is next to the Miccosukee Cultural Center; for five dollars a head, the center offers a short outdoor tour through a faux chickee hut village as well as woodcarving and alligator wrestling exhibitions. To the north, across an expansive asphalt parking lot and the Tamiami Trail, lies the cluster of huts where her family lived when she was a girl. These days Renee owns one of dozens of ranch-style houses built by the tribe. The home is located about a half-mile from her shop on a narrow paved road that parallels the Tamiami Trail.

Her sister Minnie initially worked with her but soon left patchwork for chickee building. Other prospective seamstresses have been scarce as roseate spoonbills. Her only assistants are her cousins Anita Osceola and Margaret Billie. When they are swamped, Renee calls on her mother and sister to pitch in. "I yell, 'Help!' and they come over," she says, refusing to reveal her backlog or estimate her monthly output. "We're not doing wholesale for Kmart. We're doing quality work and we're doing the best we can."

Few Miccosukee women spend much time at the sewing table these days. "Everyone's turned to TV, music, shopping," Renee says. Unemployment on the reservation is about 48 percent, according to 1997 BIA statistics, the most recent available. But that doesn't mean the approximately 600 residents live in poverty. The tribe provides free housing to all its members. And according to the Seminole Tribune, each adult member receives a dividend of about $30,000 per year from the casino and other Miccosukee businesses, which include a gas station, a tobacco store, a chickee construction company, and the cultural center's attractions. Some members also make money providing airboat tours. The tribe's chief financial officer, Mike Hernandez, refused to disclose details of tribal spending. Moreover, Renee is reticent about pecuniary matters at Indigenous Images. "I don't get into that," she says. "I don't want to. I was told not to."

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