Past to Present: A Look at Seminole Self-Government

By Jarrid L. Smith

Since 1957, the year of U.S. federal recognition, the citizens of Seminole Tribe of Florida have sought to formally govern themselves.  From the beginning, the process of self-governance has been an uphill struggle.  What caused this struggle and what does this struggle look like today?  How are Seminole people working to solve this?  Read on to find out.

Organization

In 1953 the U.S. federal government began the process to terminate its government to government relationship with the Seminoles.  If this process were to go through, the people of the tribe would be seen by the U.S. government as regular citizens, and all federal obligations to the people would be gone as well.  This provided the impetus for the people of the tribe to begin the process to gain formal federal recognition and thereby maintain its sovereign status and government to government relationship with the U.S.  This is the overarching narrative, but it’s also an oversimplification.  

This narrative implies that the people of the tribe were ready to take up self-governance immediately upon the ratification of the Seminole Constitution.  However, this narrative gets bleak when provided with a dose of reality.  In her autobiography A Seminole Legend, Betty Mae Jumper, along with historian Patsy West, describe what life was like in the 1950’s.  By 1953, there were 918 Seminoles on official documentation (Pg.137).  Of these, only four Seminole students had graduated from high school (Pg.136).  Within this, more than half lived on reservation land but a sizable number of people remained off (Pg.137).  A fourth of the people spoke English, and 70 to 80 percent were illiterate (Pg.138).  There was no formal organizing mechanism that brought all the people together, as some chose to practice Christianity while others maintained traditional beliefs (Pg.138).  

To put it simply, the people were politically disjointed and their understanding of civic duty was minimal.  This makes the fact that the tribal people voted to formally organize only four years later even more amazing.  The process would not have been possible without the efforts of the men and women who worked to explain what organizing meant and how it would benefit the people to vote.  These efforts would pay off in 1957 when the Seminole Constitution was ratified.  Yet, despite achieving success in becoming federally recognized, the vast majority of people within the tribe were taking part in a governing process that they did not fully understand.   How exactly do these things affect the Seminoles today?

Governing Today

In the 63 years since the Seminole Constitution was first ratified the people of the tribe have leaped forward in many ways.  The efforts of the tribe as a whole and of individual tribal citizens has resulted in a drastic improvement in the overall welfare, health, education, and business of the tribe.  The Seminoles are a remarkable success story within U.S. tribes.  Here, just like in the past, the narrative of success overlooks issues that started back in 1957.  It begins with the Seminole Constitution itself, which was not something that the Seminole people created by themselves.  The concept of self-government for the Seminoles began with a constitution that was created by the U.S. government.  This isn’t to imply that the Seminole people didn’t need help, but it is to recognize that the fundamental concept of democracy, power by and of the people, was undermined from the beginning.  

So it is that the Seminole people today are still in effect hampered in their efforts at self-governance by what happened in 1957.  Over the years there have been instances of efforts to reform the Seminole Constitution to meet the needs of the people, and some of these efforts have met success.  However, the larger concern from 1957 remains, and that is that the people of the tribe by and large do not work together to influence or to make changes to the Tribe’s constitution.  The sustained effort that this requires falls flat, and in the end Seminole people miss out on their responsibility as citizens, which is to maintain a check on their government’s power.  The absence of the people can result in actual or perceived abuses in power by those in elected positions.  

The concept of self-government and how best to utilize it was new to the Seminole people, but politics aside, prior to 1957 there had existed systems of social structure.  Since time immemorial these included traditional beliefs, the clan system, and more recently, Christianity.  Although not formal governmental bodies, these social structures provide the fundamental characteristic of what a government does, which is to provide for the common good of the people.  These structures help to create the understanding that what affects one family, affects all families.  This moral imperative, to be caretakers of one another, remains strong to this day.  How are the Seminole people using this to formally influence their government?  

Community Voice

In recent months the elected leaders of Seminole Tribe of Florida have postponed in person meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Formal meetings of the Tribal Council have moved online, and these meetings are not easily accessible to Tribal citizens.  Prior to COVID, the people could attend in person meetings, but even then there was dissatisfaction in the sharing of official Tribal information.  To address this, the common practice was to hold monthly community meetings where elected leaders would present information and respond to questions.  Additionally, the elected leaders made themselves available to respond to concerns through in person meetings and phone calls.  The common thread in all of this is the central role that the Tribal Council plays, which is understandable given their elected positions.  However, seperate from the efforts of their tribal government, the Seminole people struggle to organize themselves in a sustained manner to check the power of their elected leaders.  

This fact is not lost on the Seminole people, and there are people who are working to address it. One recent effort is an online forum called Community Voice, and its goal is to provide a space for discussing ideas for the betterment of the tribe.  Community Voice has held four meetings to date, and it has already had an impact on the decision-making process within the Tribe.  Community Voice was organized over the summer in direct response to a Tribal Council decision regarding the production of hemp.  The online forum received many in-person attendees, and those who could not be present were able to watch a meeting recording.  As a result of the influence of this forum regarding hemp production, the organizers decided to continue holding meetings.  

Krystal Young is one of the people who has helped to organize Community Voice.  For her part, Krystal posts the meeting flyer, serves as a facilitator in the meetings, posts meeting recordings, and has even conducted a survey.  The survey responses helped to determine the most recent meeting topic, which centered on the role of the people to check the power of their elected leaders.  When asked her biggest takeaway from the meeting, Krystal discussed her surprise at the amount of power the Council holds.  “How…ridiculous it is how much power the Council has… I knew they had a lot of power but it’s really excessive,” said Krystal.  For her, this excess in power is seen most in the election process of the Tribe.  

At the close of the Community Voice meeting held September 29th, attendees decided to address concerns with the Seminole Constitution, with a focus to put power back into the hands of the Seminole people.  “The effort is to strip away the power of Tribal Council in certain areas,” said Mariann Billie during the meeting.  There were two decisions, the first related to giving tribal people a role in the process to determine tribal ordinances.  The second related to the election process, in particular a focus on ensuring that election winners must receive greater than 50 percent of the vote total.  The aim is to hold another meeting next month.

Final Thoughts

The Seminole people are striving to maintain a government that serves the needs of the people.  Using measures of welfare, health, education, and business, the government is fulfilling the needs of the people.  From its beginnings in the 1950’s, the Tribe is in a present-day position that the Seminole Constitution founders could only imagine.  On the other hand, the civic responsibility of the people to check the power their government is still in its beginning stages.  Efforts like Community Voice, which arise from the people and separate from the tribal government, are evidence that the Seminole people are gaining civic strength.  Actions of people like Krystal Young and Mariann Billie, among many others, are evidence that the moral and ethical beliefs of the tribe are alive and well.  When the success of the Tribe aligns with the capacity for civic duty of the people, only then can it be said that the Seminoles are self-governing.

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Filed under Government, Native American

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