Sew Shall She Reap
Renee Osceola was born in a swamp, saved by a medicine man, and raised in a place where people insisted that green things were blue. On a recent Wednesday night, four decades later and twenty miles from her birthplace, she sat under fluorescent lights, ripping two long narrow strips of cloth -- one orange and one dark turquoise -- and feeding them through a buzzing Singer sewing machine. Comfortably attired in Birkenstock sandals, white tights, and a big, untucked, maroon-flannel shirt, she labored late into the evening in this lonely workroom just south of the Tamiami Trail on the Miccosukee reservation. Shelves along one wall were stacked with rolls of fabric in various colors. In front of her, across four rows of vacant sewing tables, a radio in a corner by a large window was tuned to an oldies station. In the next room, a mannequin gazed upon a fabric-filled table and a long row of shelves filled with spools of colorful thread.
Renee's long black hair spread across her back as she leaned toward the machine and mused about a discovery she made as a little girl. Her family had left an isolated cluster of huts and moved to the reservation, joining other clans that had departed swampside hamlets. One of the few things she had in common with her new neighbors was Hitchiti, a Native American language also referred to as Miccosukee. But even that connection could be perplexing. "When I moved here, I noticed that the ladies who were sewing called that blue," she says, pointing to a forest-green roll of broadcloth on a nearby shelf. "Somehow they got it twisted around." Were Renee not a clothing designer, the color conundrum might be only a semantic curiosity for her. But because most of her clients are tribe members who want custom-made patchwork, communication about color is crucial. She's philosophical about the difference: "Really there's no right or wrong, because even in non-Indian fashion, colors are always changing seasonally. What last year you would call peach might be pink this year."
Traditional and modern forces merge in Renee's universe. Her favorite designers are European gurus of high-fashion: John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, and the late Gianni Versace. Her own couture, however, is deliberately old-fashioned. Her jackets, vests, and skirts are adorned with brightly colored symbolic patchwork, the emblem of traditional Miccosukee culture. Some symbols in her repertoire refer to ancient myths. Others are symbolic of conflicts with European settlers. Still others she dreamed up.
Although her creations are throwbacks to an earlier age, they are as expensive as garments bearing the names of her European idols. This evening she is working on a skirt, one of two ordered by twins who live on the reservation. "It will take ten days to do this and I'm losing money on it because I'm giving them a good deal," she comments. Normally she would charge a minimum of $750 per skirt. Her least-expensive jacket -- satin lined with one row of patchwork -- - costs $250. A vest goes for $75. "Everybody wants everything cheap," she huffs. "Don't waste my time."
To outsiders one of Renee's patchwork strips may look meaningless, but to inhabitants of Miccosukee country they represent real things: a bolt of lightning, a crayfish, an argument, a despised enemy, a famous man on a horse, a telephone pole ... the list goes on. "This is an earlier one," she says, pointing to two triangles connected by a much smaller rectangle. "It's called broken arrow. Do you see a broken arrow there?" Then she picks up another strip composed of tiny yellow, orange, red, and maroon rectangles. "This color combination they call fire." Over the decades the symbols have grown increasingly abstract, she explains.
She points at one, invented by her sister, which consists of two narrow rectangles in the shape of a sideways letter L. "This is very now," she proclaims. "It's very, very today." The shapes have a hidden meaning, she explains. "When we come up with a new symbol, it is very abstract. It looks very complicated," Renee adds. "Because to me life has gotten complicated. That's how I look at it. You know what I'm saying?"
Tonight that complexity weighs on Renee. Her company, Indigenous Images, has many orders to fill for the unusual coterie that wears her creations: dozens of card dealers and bingo attendants, members of a mysterious Miami-Dade brotherhood, and a couple of professional wrestlers. She refuses to reveal the extent of her backlog. "That is privileged information," she says sternly. Her art is the product of a small business tucked inside a tightly controlled corporation and surrounded by an enigmatic reservation.
Renee Osceola's patchwork is virtually modern compared to the ancient crafts of many American tribes. It is a wonder it exists at all. She is the descendant of a family that belonged to a group of about 50 Miccosukee-speaking people who survived four decades of onslaughts by U.S. soldiers during the 1800s.
Before Europeans arrived in America, Renee's ancestors lived far from the Everglades in the wide expanse where Georgia and Alabama are presently located. Florida was the land of the Calusa and Tequesta tribes until Spanish explorers arrived in the early 1500s and claimed the peninsula. Further north the European encroachment didn't begin until the 1690s, when settlers from England started showing up in areas occupied by Miccosukee- and Muskogee-speaking clans. Because they lived along creeks, the English called them all Creek Indians.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
During a cable television show called Miccosukee Magazine, which aired last month on the Sunshine Network, Billy Cypress summed up the meaning of Renee's patchwork in three words: "It's our identity." Cohost Buffalo Tiger elaborated: "That type of design gives us recognition in South Florida....We don't have to have anything in writing. It's sheer design."
These days Renee can't keep up with the demand at the casino, where patchwork vests and jackets are uniforms for dozens of attendants, poker dealers, and security personnel. "Today we don't have very many patchwork makers. So it's a very hot item," Renee comments. "People are standing by waiting for you to finish when you are making something. That's how hot it is."
Outside Miccosukee country Renee's patchwork is not exactly in vogue, but it is in strong demand among one group, the Miami Lakes Lions Club. She currently is working on an order for twenty-five vests: four small, eight medium, six large, five extra-large, and two extra-extra-large. Charles Pinkerton, an orthodontist and founding member of the 35-year-old chapter, explains that every year tens of thousands of Lions Club members convene and stage a parade. Although the several-hundred-strong Florida delegation marched in patchwork vests during the 1980s, times have changed. Many of them now wear other uniforms. But the Miami Lakes branch is carrying the flame. "Every time we go to a state convention, people come up and say, 'Where did you get those vests?'" Pinkerton reports. "The standard vest that you get from Lions International is just kind of a goldish yellow. We're the only club that has these vests, so we kind of stand out."
He admits the patchwork symbols are a mystery to him. "I don't know what they mean," he says. "They're just nice-looking vests." The Miami Lakes Lions add their own touch: a logo on the back consisting of the king of beasts wearing a vest and holding a golf club. After women were allowed to join five years ago, some requested longer vests to conceal their hips. "Some of us are a little long-waisted," explains Pinkerton's wife, Colleen, a real estate agent and the women's club president.
Miccosukee patchwork jackets are making their way into other nontraditional arenas. Renee says The Rock, a World Wrestling Federation grappler who is all the rage among fans these days, bought one at the resort gift shop. And she custom made a jacket last year for another wrestler, Chief White Eagle, who also is known as Richard Buster. He is a tribe member, and his wife, Becky Buster, is marketing director at the Miccosukee resort.
"Someone once said that when you are in a position to have something made especially for you, there's just no greater sense of status," Becky observes. "Everything we make here for you will give you that status. It's made just for you and you feel good about wearing it."
Every once in a while Osceola thinks of Galliano, Gaultier, and Versace and ponders trying something a little more over the top. "I admire what those designers do outrageously," she says. "Because I'm sitting here doing something toned down. I'm not outrageous like they are. Probably because I don't have the nerve to do it. I'm dealing with what everybody wants."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.