The Seminole people are related to the Creek tribes who once inhabited what is now Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. The indigenous peoples of Florida were greatly reduced in number as a result of illness from and conflicts with Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Intertribal and European-Indian conflicts caused a group of the southern Creeks to move south into Florida along with smaller numbers of other Southeastern tribes in the 1700s. These peoples and some members of surviving tribes in Florida united to form the Seminole.
Spanish Florida created a haven for escaped African American slaves from north of the Florida border. These escaped slaves chose to settle near the Seminole and the two groups were often allies, combining forces against attempts to recover slaves and in conflicts between the United States Army and the Seminoles. In addition, the United States had an interest in acquiring Florida. The United States Government began to see them as a combined problem, and the runaway slaves and their descendants were known as "Seminole Maroons," base on assumptions that there was widespread intermarriage. In fact there was only limited intermarriage between the Seminoles and their African American neighbors. This complex situation came to a head in 1817 when General Andrew Jackson led an invasion into Florida, sparking a long series of battles with the Seminole. Florida became a United States territory in 1819.
Andrew Jackson became President in 1829 and set about removing American Indian tribes from the Southeast to Indian Territory, in what is now Oklahoma, in the 1830s. The Seminoles resisted relocation, and while the majority of the tribe was forcibly removed along with some of their African American allies, a small number remained in southern Florida. A field recording of a song about the removal of the Seminole people to Oklahoma was made in 1940, sung by Seminole schoolgirls Katie Smith and Courtney Parker (the sound quality of this recording is poor).
Some of the Florida Seminoles accepted reservation lands in the 1940s and gained Federal recognition as the Seminole Tribe of Florida in 1957. Another group was given Federal recognition as the Miccosukee Tribe in 1962. The largest group is the Seminole community in Oklahoma. The Florida Seminoles speak two related languages, Mikasuki and Creek. Many community members speak more than one of these languages in addition to English, though more speak Mikasuki. The Seminole people of Oklahoma spoke Creek, but this was almost entirely replaced by English during the twentieth century. In the late twentieth century the community developed programs to revitalize their culture and to encourage adults and children to learn and speak Creek in addition to English. Songs sung in Creek are a part of these educational programs.
This presentation includes recordings made of Florida Seminole singers in 1940 as part of a Work Projects Administration project during the Great Depression. This recording is of Lura May Jumper, age eight, singing a traditional children's song called "Chish-hi-you-bung-gay" (The Bat Song) for researcher Carita Doggett Corse.
Seminole adults sang songs used in traditional ceremonies for the researchers. These examples were sung for the purpose of being recorded and not in the performance of the ceremonies. A song from the Green Corn Dance, celebrated by the Seminole and Miccosukee in the spring, "Buffalo Song," was performed by Billy Bowlegs, Barfield Johns, John Josh, Richard Osceola, Robert Osceola, and Naha Tiger. It may be surprising to find a song about the buffalo in Florida. While northernmost Florida was the southern limit of the range of the buffalo in the east before western European contact, buffalo were once found in the Southeast. "Buffalo" is also a societal group among the Seminoles. So this is an example of a song, and an animal symbol, that traveled to Florida with the peoples who migrated there from farther north. Another example of a song from the Green Corn Dance is the "Catfish Song," sung by John Josh and Richard Osceola. Notice the call and response style of singing that is very different from the songs of Plains Indian tribes that are sung in unison. This call and response style of singing is typical of other American Indian peoples who formerly inhabited the southeastern United States as well. For the Green Corn dance, the drum used is a small hand drum. Traditionally rattles were made of coconut shells or turtle shells, but may be made of other materials today. Women may also wear small rattles tied to their legs below the knee.
"Snake Song," sung by Billy Bowlegs, Barfield Johns, John Josh, Robert Osceola, and Naha Tiger, and "Horned Owl Song," sung by John Josh, are examples of songs from the Hunting Dance, which was a Seminole and Miccosukee autumn ceremony. The Green Corn Dance continues to be celebrated today, but the Hunting Dance is no longer practiced. 
- The photograph on this page, which was taken in about 1895, is of Billy Bowlegs, III (1862-1965), also known by his Seminole name, Chufi Hajo. He was of Seminole and African American parentage and grew up among the Seminole in Florida. Born Billy Fewel, he took the name Billy Bowlegs, III as an adult in honor of two Seminole chiefs of that name. He became a tribal historian and strove to educate the general public about the Seminole people. He performed Seminole songs and dances at public events, including the Florida Folklife Festival. He continued to perform even in his nineties. He may be the Billy Bowlegs recorded by Clarita Doggett Corse and Robert Cornwall in two of the examples in this article, as he was well known to folklorists. But the collectors recorded the singer's name only as "Billy Bowlegs," without information that would distinguish him from others using that name. [back to article]
- According to the article "Florida Seminole and Miccosukee," by William C. Sturtevant and Jessica R. Cattelino in Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 14, Raymond D. Fogelson, vol. ed., p. 441, the last Hunting Dance ceremony was performed in 1968. [back to article]
- "American Indian and Native Alaskan Song." See the Resource section at the bottom of this article for links to more articles about indigenous peoples in Songs of America.
- Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections 1937-1942 (includes 12 Seminole songs)
- See articles about Ethnic Song in America