The Seminole Tribe of Florida. We pride ourselves in being the “Unconquered.” As a federally recognized tribe, we’ve never signed a peace treaty or surrendered in any way to colonial powers. During the Seminole Wars, a span of over 40 years, Native refugees from tribes across the south successfully resisted forces by settling in the heart of the Everglades. They refused to be displaced by the government onto reservations. This mélange of Creek, Hitchiti, and other tribes secluded in the swamps’ harsh environment formed a unique, resilient culture. After hundreds of years, pride in tradition and family brought us as a tribe to where we are today; but what was also important was our ability to adapt.
Patchwork is a textile craft of methodical patterns and symbols, and has been a significant part of Seminole identity and progress. In the 1920s, tribal members began selling Indian dolls with patchwork dresses, baskets, beads, and other cultural crafts to tourists. The tribe quickly realized that to remain a thriving, sovereign nation, becoming financially self-sufficient was necessary in the wake of Florida’s growing economy. Patchwork’s colorful, distinct, and exotic appearance became the Seminole’s cultural mark.
Patchwork is commonly incorporated into jackets, shirts, vests, and dresses. It comes in a variety of symbols: Turtle, Bird, Crayfish, Broken Arrow, Lightning, Fire, etc. The patterns are intricate constructions of fabric pieces, and must be crafted separately before they’re sewn into a base fabric. Sewing patchwork is a highly regarded skill that is delegated to the women of the tribe; after all, most Native American social structures are matriarchal.
A traditional Seminole woman’s dress consists of a full, floor-length skirt adorned with a ruffle at knee-length, a long sleeved cotton blouse, bead necklaces, and a ruffled cape. Anywhere from two to six rows of traditional patchwork (like Man on Horse or Trees) and biased tape can be found on both the cape and the skirt. A traditional Seminole man’s dress consists of a patchwork longshirt, a plaid wool turban, and a leather or beaded belt.
Alison Osceola, a tribal member from the Hollywood reservation, joins many other women in continuing the patchwork tradition. In her late teens, she learned to sew patchwork from her mother and other women in the tribe. As a tight knit community, elders take pride in teaching the youth the necessary skills for cultural crafts.
“I slowly picked it up. For me, it was very important to learn our traditional crafts so that I can pass it on to my kids. I have that knowledge and ability to share it. It’s a dying art.”
Not only is it a dying art, but a livelihood. Since patchwork has come to the point of artificial manufacture outside of the Seminole tribe, authentic patchwork is in high demand. Nontribal and tribal members alike commission Osceola for her patchwork clothing. She works from home, and has a created gorgeous collection of skirts. Depending on the material and amount of patchwork, full skirt and cape dresses can sell on average around $1,000 -$1,500. Men’s jackets, a more modern and very popular item, can sell for around $700-$1,000, also depending on patchwork amounts and material. Traditions can be valuable.
But as an evolving nation, our clothing and patchwork is constantly changing as well. More modern skirts are knee length, can have only one row of patchwork, and are made of more flashy materials as opposed to the conventional cotton. They also sport rickrack (a zigzag, mercerized cotton thread) instead of biased tape.
“I’m trying to keep a very traditional feeling to the clothes but with a modern twist. I like to use more traditional patchwork with more modern materials, like sequins or satin. Our clothing is the one type of clothing that can really be modernized to make it everyday wearable,” says Osceola.
Though the Seminole tribe has branched out in other ventures to sustain itself financially, patchwork is still going strong. Skirts and jackets are worn casually, and can be seen and admired at any community gathering. It’s safe to say even a baseball cap has been seen sporting some rickrack and Man on a Horse.
Today, many women know how to sew patchwork, whether it’s for artistic or economic reasons. Daughters, granddaughters, nieces, cousins; anyone willing to learn is taught with pleasure. The Seminole Cultural Department offers materials and guidance for any tribal member looking to learn a cultural craft or two. It’s a great place for youth to stop by and learn to sew patchwork. It encourages the perpetuation of a beautiful, strong, transforming art. Sho-naa-bish.