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.

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Kirk Nielsen
Contact: Kirk Nielsen

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