An interesting discussion on our Seminole Wars facebook group got me thinking. And it quickly turned into something that I can’t really type in those little boxes on the screen, but must direct a long epistle on my blog.
It started out by a couple posts:
“I appreciate and enjoy your posts as well. I wish that you or someone as knowledgeable as you would write a book about the Seminole chiefs and sub chiefs. Their names are confusing to me. Maybe a list with their English meaning and a page or two biography. Even just a post on Facebook. Maybe like a chief of the day. Have a different chief every day, give his name, its English meaning and a biography. We as lovers of Florida history need to keep their memories alive.”
That is a pretty intimidating task that would be taken on.
The only thing that I have ever seen that came close, was a small publication that I found many years ago, when Mickler's Floridiana bookstore in Oviedo would be an interesting place to make a pilgrimage to hoard Florida books. (Unfortunately, long since gone.) This is where I got a large part of my library on Seminole and Florida books.
I found a book that I don’t know if you can call it such. Printed off a photocopy machine and bound in a school report folder, like a high school student’s report, about 50 pages. But sometimes, the most obscure references have the best nuggets of information. And this one is a whole smorgasbord. By Tom Knotts. (Never saw anything else written by him.) "Names Significant & Insignificant of Florida Seminole Indians and Negroes 1750-1860." He was apparently from Yankeetown where the Withlacoochee runs into the Gulf of Mexico around the area of Citrus and Levy County. But the book lists his press printed in the Miami area. He must have been an excellent researcher with his extensive bibliography before the age of internet. He lists about every name he could find reference to, and there are hundreds. A monumental task that he probably worked on for several years.
Reading over his notes, this is not a simple task because there are misunderstandings and mis-identifications of the names.
As my Seminole friend Pedro wonderfully said something of the sort, “We don’t want to record the language, we want to have it spoken.”
In other words, keep the language alive.
With a language, carries the culture. The spoken language is also the living breath of the people. The indigenous language is the people’s perception of all they were and all that they are. Their perception of Creator and the natural world they are within, and interact with. And in Seminole culture, women would have one name, and men might have four; most not willing to let outsiders know what those names are.
Many of the names can be confusing. This is because the people who wrote them down 200 or 175 years ago did not have an understanding of the language or the culture of the people, and not always appreciated them. Thus, are many mistranslations and mis-identifications. For the Creek and Seminoles, as probably the other southeastern Tribes, names were not just something like Bob or Betty. They would be a title, a ceremonial function or status, or an event that happened in their life. It would also, probably, be connected to family or clans, of a matriarchal system that was often not understood in white society.
Tom Knotts goes on to write back in 1992, that the Seminoles were also a mixture of people and cultures that further mixed up things. The Seminoles were remnants of refugees. Muscogee, Miccosukee, Yuchi, runaway African slaves for the Spanish, British, or Americans. There was a letter in the late war where the commanding general heard of Choctaw refugees among the Seminoles, and wants to know who they were, and how did they get among the Seminoles in Florida? Within these main groups, you have remnants of small groups and sub-tribes. Apalachicolas, Tallahassees, Eufaula, who were never recognized separate from the main tribe but a significant minority within that might have their own significant, special words or cultural practices as well.
Many names are easily identified as animals. Alligator—Hal-ah-pat-ter. Bear—No-go-see. Bird—Fus-wah. Snake—Chit-to. But not as straight forward as one would think. The animal might also be clan affiliation. Taking on an animal name might also be taking on characteristics identified with that animal.
But when we have animal names given, the name from the Seminole language might be translated to something entirely different. Here are a few examples:
Tiger Tail, and there are many using this name, is also called Thlocco Tustennuggee, which translates to “Big Warrior.” We obviously don’t have tigers in Florida, but many people believe it to be a mistranslation from the Florida panther, a subspecies of the cougar or mountain lion. One story is that the Seminole warrior was called Tiger Tail from wearing a panther’s trail from his waist during a stickball game. This certainly has greater cultural meaning behind it. But Seminoles have said that there once were lions and tigers in Florida. Could this be a remnant knowledge of the saber toothed tiger? (Which I know that particular story also survives, of “the long toothed cat.”) Then there is the story of when rabbit tricked the lion to go onto an island which drifted away. So besides the Seminole name Thlocco Tustennugee translating into something complete different than Tiger Tail, the meaning behind the Tiger Tail may not be as simple as we first thought.
Another chief is called Blue Snake or Holatta Emathla. Holattee is the word for the color blue, but Emathla is the title for a sub-chief. We don’t have recorded why he was called snake, or where the snake came from. Was it clan affiliation?
There is a chief that John Lee Williams in 1832 calls Bacca, or Chief of the Old Fields. There is no B in the Muscogee language. It usually morphs into a P or W. So Bacca could be from the word Waca, which is the Seminole word taken from the Spanish word Vaca, or cow/cattle. Or it could be dirt from the word Fakke/Fah-gee, since he did have fields and evidently farming. Or pvkacv/paka-jah which can be a captain or military type designation. Or maybe the white men called him Baccus from the Greek/Roman origin for growing things?
Then you have Chief John Hicks, who was designated as the head chief of the Seminoles and Miccosukee by coercion by the US government, with ceremony at the Indian Agency (before Fort King was built nearby) in 1826, until his death around 1833. He is also called Toksee Emathla or Tukose Mathla. One source also calls him Mole Chief as a possible clan designation, but you don’t hear of that as a clan. It could be that there once was a Mole Clan, that has long since disappeared. He is also called Ant Chief as a translation, from the word Tokoca/Too-go-jah. But further, I was told by a very knowledgeable elder of Miccosukee/Seminole, that the name has an entirely different origin that has nothing to do with mole or ants. For some reason, a lot of people who go by the name of Hicks claim to be related, but I am very skeptical about this.
So often, the name of one person is not as simple as it may seem. See how much writing I had to do for just these three names, and not even started on them? I presently do not have the time for such a project, even if I do have an extensive library and most all of the sources that Tom Knotts used. And a few that he doesn’t have.
Also, I would hope that everyone would also seek knowledge of the language and culture. I am still learning myself, and feel that I am still only scratched the surface in 30 years of intense study of the history and culture.