"With the Seminole at Home, as an Era Draws to a Close: 'Rope Cypress in Full Costume, With his Children, Florida Everglades," 1910.
--Paul Hampton Crockett
IN 1910, prominent ethnologist Alanson Skinner, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, ventured into the depths of the Everglades to procure from the tribesmen quality examples of their traditional clothing and "artifacts," for display in the Museum's monumental Hall of the American Indian, then new.
In those days, such a mission could be an intimidating prospect, primarily because the Seminole wanted as little to do with the outsiders as possible.
Skinner, an experienced professional and (importantly) a good man, was up to the challenge. He acted strategically in assembling an ideal team, spearheaded by young Frank Brown, a son of the local storeowner whose business trading with the Seminole over the years had gained him their trust, famously hard-won.
Young Frank had grown up in both cultures; from an early age his best friend was a Seminole boy named Josie Billie. Josie's father was held in considerable esteem within the tribe. Over the course of years he took Frank "under his wing" and taught him the Indian ways, exactly as he might a son of his own. Frank, implicitly trusted by the native people, versed in the culture, bilingual, and fully at home in the forbidding Everglades, made the successful mission possible.
Completing the party were young photographer Julian Dimock, who took these pictures, and his father Anthony.
The first shot is a gold mine of information, but might require just a bit of explanation. You will note that the "costume" seen is not what we'd typically think of as "Seminole," the festive, brilliantly colorful, and meticulously crafted clothing worn by men and women alike. (The second picture shows Cypress back in his more casual, daily wear.)
The difference between the photos illustrates the point that the Seminole, as we have known and thought of them, have in certain respects been shaped by their exposure to "White (American) culture."
Traditional "Seminole" garb, for example, sprang into being only after the first commercial sewing machines, needles, thread, and varieties of fabric were made available at the frontier trading posts. Yet the true identity of the "Seminole" is rooted in the more ancient Creek tribe, thriving since before memory in scattered parts of today's American South. They were abused and forcibly removed to the "Indian territories" when the White man came, a series of hard blows from which they have never really recovered.
The "Seminole" are descendants of those who elected to seek refuge in the Florida territory relatively nearby, vast and untamed. That move annoyed and irritated the White Man's government, but what set them on fire was their practice of unrepentantly harboring runaway Black slaves, and refusing to turn them over to the thugs who'd come to fetch them. The three wars subsequently conducted by the combined military forces of the United States, over the course of decades, remains even today, when adjusted for inflation, the most costly "war" in which the United States ever participated.
Yet at the end of the day the Seminole, though greatly reduced in number, remained "unconquered."
The "costume" seen in the first picture tells us a story of a tribal way of living largely vanished even when the picture was taken, in 1910. It belongs to the Creek tribe, of Cypress' ancestors. It is worth a close look, because unlike the clothing of today, every bit of it is absolutely unique, its parts carefully chosen, and imbued with a set of values, ideals and beliefs unknown to us. It's easy to imagine that Rope Cypress had mixed feelings even putting it on, but you can see in his eyes, and face, an extreme kindness, the long history of injustice and violence notwithstanding. black colored items to wear of the party
Skinner and co. got along famously with their hosts, and he brought back to New York a respectable haul of clothing and other items, some of which are still showcased in one of the dimly lit display windows, adding a conspicuous touch of brilliant color much needed in a hall of long shadows, as unusually silent and still as a dream nearly forgotten.