The Issue of the Seminole Mascot

The final BCS National Championship saw the Florida State Seminoles beat Auburn for their first national title since the 1999 season. A day later David Zirin, the Nation’s* sports writer, also proclaimed the school as the “Champion of Racist Mascots.” Zirin makes some good points in looking at the continued use of the mascot as opposition grows to Washington’s NFL fanchise and general usage of Native American mascots. Yet in arguing against the mascot, Zirin delegitmatizes the Seminole Tribe of Florida because they endorse the mascot and run casinos.

Zirin is correct in pointing out that there is both the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and the Seminole Tribe of Florida and that this is the biggest visible legacy of Indian Removal during the first half of the nineteenth century. As with the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Muscogees (Creeks) a small group of Seminoles chose to oppose removal and fled into the remote swamps of Florida. The Seminole Tribe of Florida, formerly recognized in 1957, draws it’s history from this group. It’s important to note that the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Seminole Nation are separate political entities and operate independently of one other. That’s also the case with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee Nation, and the Muscogees and Choctaws and their smaller counterparts in Mississippi and Alabama.

Zirin objects to the continued use of the Seminole mascot because the more populous Seminole Nation has voiced opposition to it, a completely valid point and one that highlights the shallow nation of the NCAA’s policy on Native mascots. The bigger issue is how he characterizes the Seminole Nation of Florida:

As for the Florida Seminole Tribal Council, it is the owner of a series of luxury casino hotels throughout the state where the Seminole “brand” is prominently on display. The Tribal Council also bought the Hard Rock Cafe for $965 million in cash in 2006, which thanks to the Seminoles’ “first-nation status” now also offers gambling in its Florida locales. Hard Rock corporate called this “the perfect marriage of two kindred spirits.” Seminole Nation Hard Rock Hotel and Casino T-shirts are available for purchase.

There’s been a long debate about Native wealth and it’s role in shaping and defining Nativeness and a lot of it hasn’t been flattering. In particular the rise of Native American casinos has led people like Donald Trump to proclaim tribes like the Pequots in Connecticut aren’t really Native American. Zirin’s characterization of the Seminole Tribe seems to fall in line (at least in part) with that idea as he sees the tribe as little more than a brand for their casino enterprises. What Zirin ignores is the complex issues of sovereignty and the role gaming has played in helping the Seminole Tribe maintain their sovereignty. The decision of the tribe to support Florida State’s usage of the Seminole mascot is undoubtedly caught up in maintaining beneficial political alliances in Tallahassee but it’s no reason to delegitmatize the tribe’s decision.

All of that being said, the usage of Chief Osceola as a mascot has a history arising, at least in part, rooted in southern identity in the aftermath of the Civil War. As Theda Purdue wrote in the Journal of Southern History:

By the end of the nineteenth century, southern Indians no longer presented an obstacle to “civilization”; they were brave men who had fought for their homelad and, even in defeat, preserved their honor. White southerners began to see shared experiences—love of homeland, valiant defense of a way of life, defeat, and sorrow.Osceola, the Seminole Warrior became the South’s favorite Indian.…Following his death, many Americans sought a piece of Osceola—his painted image, his clothing, his weapons, items of personal adornment, his hair, and even his head, which the physican attending him removed before interment and reportedly displayed in his drugstore in St. Augustine, Florida. The fascination of non-Indians with Osceola follows a national pattern of conveying celebrity on deceased warriors: extolling their power, status, and victories made their defeat seem all the more glorious. But for southerners, Osceola’s fight for his homeland took on added significance, and they regarded him less as a worthy opponent than as one of their own. Osceola embodied the white southern values that formed the real bedrock of American liberty.

Theda Purdue, “The Legacy of Indian Removal,” Journal of Southern History 78 (February 2012), 20-21. See also, Theda Purdue, “Osceola: The White Man’s Indian,” review of Osceola’s Legacy by Patricia R. Wickman, The Florida Historical Quarterly 70 (April 1992), 475-488.

Now that’s cultural appropriation to be offended by.