Traditional Seminole Dolls: More Than Just a Toy

Before we talk about the incredible amount of craftsmanship and work that goes into these dolls, let’s get a brief (very brief) overview of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Since this post is about the dolls, I’m only going to talk about the tribe’s beginnings. For more information, I recommend the official website of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

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Mary Billie and Claudia John holding handmade Seminole dolls. Big Cypress Reservation, Florida, 1980. Photo via Florida Memory.

Members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida are descended from tribes that lived in the southeast for 10,000-12,000 years. When the Spanish “discovered” America in the early 16th century, approximately 200,000 Seminole ancestors already lived in what would become Florida. Like many Native Americans, these tribes did not escape the disease and devastation brought by Europeans. Thousands were killed by war or disease or displaced.

Despite this devastation, many tribes in the Southeast would not allow Europeans to conquer them. Spaniards began calling these people “cimarrones” meaning “free people.” The word was adopted into the native language, Maskókî (also known as Muscogee), and it morphed into “Seminole”. In the 18th century, the Seminole tribe was formed from tribes across Florida and Georgia, as well as escaped slaves. They settled in Florida with an instinct for survival and a common purpose: refusal to be dominated by the white man. The Seminole Tribe of Florida was officially recognized by Congress in 1957.

Now onto the dolls, which became more than a toy. I should note that much of this information comes from a wonderful educational unit/interview on Florida Memory that is all about Mary Billie’s doll-making.

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Mary Billie, 1980. Photo via Florida Memory.

Yep, that’s how they start: with a scrub palmetto and a tool that looks like a machete-ax hybrid. Palmettos are plentiful in Florida, especially inland. It could take Mary a day or two to find the right kind of palmetto, though. One Palmetto provides the fiber for 4-5 dolls. Typically, Mary would cut 15-50 (!!!) palmettos once she found the right kind. That’s a lot of cutting and a lot of dolls.

If the fibers are dry enough, she could start making dolls right away. If not, she needed to lay them out to dry for a day or so.

Now is the time that I need to tell you that like any tradition, there are varying ways to carry it out. We’re going to be talking about the specific way Mary made the dolls.

Mary started with the head, which we can see here. The head is always stuffed with palmetto fibers and, traditionally, the body would be, too. Mary preferred cotton for the body, though. She would then cut a circle of cardboard to sew onto the bottom so the doll could stand up on its own (photo below).

From there, she could add facial features and hair. The hairstyles on the dolls could reflect past or present Seminole style and would be made with materials like cardboard or yarn.

Now onto the clothes! Mary was a pro so she often made clothes for the dolls ahead of time so that when it came time to dress them, she just had to sew them on. The clothes the dolls were dressed in used traditional Seminole and Miccosukee designs, which include lots of bright colors.

The last step was the jewelry (above, right). Of the jewelry, Mary said, “The jewelry also shows a popular Seminole style of earlier times. My grandmother used to do that. She used to wear a lot of beads. That’s what they used to do. They would be heavy.”

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Unfinished and finished dolls. Photo via Florida Memory.

Once the jewelry was on, the doll was done.

This tradition began in the 19th century and has grown to one of the most recognizable art traditions of Native Americans in Florida. But selling dolls to tourists also became a booming business.

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Annie Jimmie sewing dolls, 1984. Photo via Florida Memory.

Starting in the 1910s, Seminole began working at tourist villages, allowing tourists to learn about traditional Seminole life. It wasn’t until two decades later that the dolls really came into play, though. Following the Great Depression, the hide trade, a source of income for the Seminole tribe, was in decline. To fill the void, Seminoles living in tourist villages began making dolls to sell. Tourists bought them like crazy, helping alleviate some of the pain of losing a main source of income. You can still buy them at “pow-wows” and, of course, on eBay.

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Group of finished dolls. Photo via Florida Memory.

I love these dolls because they represent so much: history, a rich culture, and hard work. And they’re uniquely Florida.

For another view of Florida’s early tourism industry, check out my post on Tin Can Tourism.


Sources
Seminole Doll Making on Florida Memory
Seminole Dolls album on Flickr
Seminole Tribe of Florida

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