Seminole Music, Language, and Legacy
Even before the modern rock empire of the Seminole Hard Rock, music has been closely tied to Seminole culture, identity, and history. Seminoles use music for social, political, and educational purposes. Significantly, they pass down stories, legends, and even language through song. This week, we are exploring the legacy of Seminole music, and how it has shifted and changed over time. Additionally, at the end of the post, we will look at a handful of modern Seminole artists, and current Seminole representation in music.
Above, you can see Dr. Judy Ann Osceola, Pauline (nee Jumper, married name unknown), Judy Baker, Mary Louise Johns (nee Jumper), Priscilla Sayen, and Judy Bill Osceola (with guitar). Occasionally, the women were asked to sing at events as a show of support for the newly formed government of the Seminole Tribe of Florida in the late 1950s.
In our featured image this week, you can see Bobby Henry leading a stomp dance at the Grand Opening of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in 1997. Stomp dances are an example of early traditional Seminole music, where “men chanted while the women kept the beat, working together while moving in formation to carry out the dance, which has both religious and social significance.” Often, traditional Seminole music heavily features nature, animals, and legends that retell their history, and is closely tied to dance.
Some Seminole music includes small hand drums or rattles made of coconut or turtle shells. Some musicians use wooden flutes, although they have become rare. Today, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Director Gordon Wareham plays a traditional wooden flute and has spent over 20 years perfecting his music. “You give the instrument its breath, and in turn, it gives you a voice,” Wareham stated in a WGCU article about the 2022 American Indian Arts Festival (AIAC).
Some traditional music includes call and response style songs. These were “typical of other American Indian peoples who formerly inhabited the southeastern United States.” But, traditional Seminole music always has a purpose; whether to share a legend, promote healing, or for some other social or political function. In an effort to preserve this part of their culture, a number of Seminole elders participated in recordings of some of their traditional songs in the 1930s and 40s. These elders included Josie Billie, Billy Bowlegs, Naha Tiger, and many others.
Keeping Traditional Seminole Music and Culture Alive
Traditional music also represents a form of resistance, keeping alive the history and legacy of the Seminole Tribe against all odds. During the fragmentation that came during and after the Seminole War period, the culture and even languages spoken by Seminole people were in jeopardy. But, the U.S. Government also began the heinous practice of forced attendance at boarding schools for indigenous children during this period. Institutions forced children to assimilate with Western culture and abandon their traditional languages and customs. Indigenous people used music as a way to keep these traditions and languages alive. Seminoles passed the Creek and Mikasuki languages down through music. It was often dangerous or even deadly to speak them.
In a Seminole moments presentation in 2012, also mentioned below, the importance of keeping the language and traditions alive is underscored. “They’ve taken many things from the Indian people, but one of those things that the U.S. government has never been able to take away is the culture and the music,” community outreach specialist Van Samuels said.
Today, several dedicated Seminole cultural advocates work hard to keep the language, traditions, and legends seen in Seminole music alive. In 2022, Seminole artist and cultural advocate Brian Zepeda hosted “Seminole Legends and Music” which was co-organized with the FSU Center for Music of the Americas (CMA). During the performance, he presented several Seminole songs and legends, many of which helped share the history and culture of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. You can find a full recording of the event here. About the event, Zepeda noted that his goal is to “share as much as I can of my indigenous culture while protecting its essential core.”
Modern Seminole Music
Below, join us to explore some of the newest and most impactful Seminole and Miccosukee artists of the modern era! All of the artists below have worked to inspire, encourage, and uphold culture through their work. So, we encourage you to seek out and support their music. Also, stay tuned at the end of this post for details on upcoming events featuring some of these artists!
Members of the Miccosukee Tribe, brothers Stephen and Lee Tiger together made up the influential band Tiger/Tiger from the 1960s on. Buffalo Tiger, who was incredibly influential in the Miccosukee gaining federal recognition, was their father. The brothers began to play guitar around age eleven, and formed their own band by age thirteen. The duo broke many of the stereotypes around native artists. Stephen would recall that “We wanted to grow our hair long and play in a band. It was very important to us.” Stephen wrote almost all their original songs, which heavily used themes about their Miccosukee heritage. “Music is a great vehicle for getting across a message of understanding,” he said, and “getting around stereotypes people have of Native Americans.” They cut their first official album “Tiger Tiger” in 1974 with RCA studio.
The brothers would go on to have a long and influential music career, releasing their last album Southern Exposure in 2000. Additionally, the brothers received a lifetime achievement award from the Native American Music Association (NAMA) in 2006. Here, you can see a promotional flyer for Tiger/Tiger, with Stephen Tiger (L) and Lee Tiger (R). In the late 1970s, both brothers returned back to the Miccosukee Reservation to aid in the tribe’s tourism ventures. They would help their father establish both the Miccosukee Arts Festival and the Miccosukee Village in the Everglades. Later, they would organize a number of music festivals, featuring both Indigenous and mainstream artists. Afterward, Lee Tiger would go on to continue promoting Indigenous tourism in Florida. He worked with the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes on marketing and tourism, and even helped develop Billie Swamp Safari in the 1990s.
Former Chairman James E. Billie has had an incredible influence on the Seminole Tribe of Florida, both as a political powerhouse and as a musician. Billie often uses traditional language in his songs. A fierce advocate for preserving Seminole culture and traditional language, Billie received a Florida Folk Heritage Award in 2019. Ten years earlier in 1999, he received a Grammy nomination for his song Big Alligator. Additionally in 1999, the Native American Music Awards named Billie a Living Legend. Billie was instrumental in bringing Phish to the Big Cypress Reservation in 1999. He performed two songs with them during the historic concert.
At a Seminole Moments presentation in 2012, community outreach specialist Everett Osceola noted the impact Billie’s music had on him. Osceola showed a video of Billie performing Sawgrass Flower on Big Cypress in 1989, switching back and forth between English and Mikasuki. In a Seminole Tribune article about the presentation, Osceola said that Billie helped pass on the language through his music and was at the forefront of contemporary Seminole music. He then recalled the Chairman visiting his preschool to sing to his class and then asking students to sing The Counting Song back to him. “I remember listening to that song until I wore [the cassette tape] out,” Osceola said, adding that “music is one way the ancient language is learned and kept alive.” James Billie would debut his song “Sawgrass Flower” at the 10th Anniversary of the Miccosukee Arts Festival in 1986.
Below, you can see Billie standing with John Anderson among a group of other musicians. John Anderson’s beloved hit Seminole Wind is arguably the most prolific mainstream country hit that carries a Seminole influence. With lyrics that nod to the hardships of the Seminole War Period, Chief Osceola, and the draining of the Everglades, this hit song would shine a light on the Seminoles of Florida. Recently, Luke Combs covered the hit in a 2022 John Anderson tribute album.
Award winning actress and singer Paula Bowers-Sanchez is from the Brighton Reservation, and now lives on the Hollywood Reservation. She has had numerous acting roles, such as in “The Fast and the Furious,” “Jag,” “ER,” “Without a Trace,” and “Bad Boys II.” In 2017, Bowers-Sanchez performed at the Grand Ole Opry with the Nitty Gritty Band. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from New York University and a master’s degree in mental health counseling from Nova Southeastern University.
Bowers-Sanchez often uses her platform to encourage tribal youth to follow their dreams. “I want them to see there are no limits,” said Bowers-Sanchez. “No matter what the goal is, you get what you put into it. I’ve seen what happens when kids don’t try, and I’ve seen what happens when they do.” Her public service announcements work to not only encourage tribal youth, but to stress that they are the future of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. “I was born and raised on the reservation; I came from where these kids are now,” she said. “I want them to know if I can do it, so can they.”
Her PSAs have had a significant impact. Spencer Battiest and Doc Native, below, featured Paula Bowers-Sanchez in their latest music video Dream in 2021. “A public service announcement Paula Bowers-Sanchez made inspired me as a kid,” Battiest said “She was fearless going after her dream; she just got on the stage and showed her talent. That was the moment for me when I was a young teenager.”
Spencer Battiest and Doc Native
Brothers Spencer Battiest and Doc Native are some of the most recognizable modern Seminole musicians of the moment. Splitting their time growing up between the Hollywood Reservation and Broken Bow, Oklahoma, the brothers come from a long line of musicians. They released their breakout song, The Storm in 2011. It was written as a tribute to the Seminole Tribe of Florida, their history, and their family. Later, the song would go on to be nominated for three Native American Music Awards. In a 2017 Smithsonian magazine article about their music, Spencer emphasized how much their heritage influenced them. He said “I’ve always had close ties with my tribe since I was young, as I push forward in my career and see how far I can go, I always carry my tribe with me.”
The brothers would release Dream in 2021, on the 10 year anniversary of The Storm’s release. This song and music video were about who the brothers are today, and their life struggles that got them there. “Our dreams and what we want to accomplish in life can be a fantasy, but we are still wide awake to what is happening in the world,” said Battiest, “Like the injustices Indigenous people go through every day; repression and not being heard. The final lyric is how it is a fight to get people to take you seriously or listen to the experience of a Native person. It has so much meaning, not just because I did it with my brother, but we show more of our hearts and what we go through every day.”
The music video features other Indigenous people the brothers admire, including Paula Bowers- Sanchez mentioned above. Recently, Spencer Battiest and Doc Native performed at the National Museum of the American Indian’s Native Cinema Showcase in Santa Fe, New Mexico on August 19th.
Featured at the Inaugural Indigenous Arts and Music Festival earlier this year, Carradine Billie received his second NAMA nomination in 2022 when his song Osceola was nominated for “best rap video.” His first nomination was for the song Remember Me. Billie, also known as Seminole Prince, is from the Big Cypress Reservation. Although Osceola is about the Seminole War period, Billie chose to portray a modern-day warrior in his music video. “Living as modern-day Seminoles, we have our own battles,” Billie said. “I’ve been sober 17 years. It took its toll on me; I lost a lot of friends to it. I knew it was time to make something better of my life and it was the best decision I ever made.”
Anthony Balentine aka Aye Five
Anthony Balentine, also known as Aye Five, is a multi-talented artist from the Big Cypress Reservation. He is a singer, songwriter, and rapper, and has even built his own record label, Paint Your Picture Records. Balentine has been making music for fifteen years. He received his first NAMA nomination for his song “Illusionz” in 2022 for best narrative in a video. Balentine states he feels compelled to share his music. “Ever since I was a little boy I knew I was here for a higher calling,” he said. “These messages in my music aren’t mine; they come from the universe for me to share. When you’re alone you get messages from the universe. That’s why being alone is a superpower.”
Interested in hearing and experiencing more Seminole music, art, and dance? Next February, the Seminole Tribe of Florida will be hosting the Indigenous Arts and Music Festival from February 2-3, 2024. This event will kick off three full weekends of Seminole music, art, and dance. Details below for all three events! This includes the Seminole Tribal Fair & Pow Wow and the Brighton Field Day Festival and Rodeo !
? Indigenous Arts and Music Festival ?
?️ February 2-3, 2024
? Junior Cypress Rodeo Arena, 36500 Rodeo Dr., Clewiston, FL
? Seminole Tribal Fair & Pow Wow ?
?️ February 9-11, 2024
? Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood, FL
? Brighton Field Day Festival and Rodeo ?
?️ February 16-18, 2024
? Fred Smith Rodeo Arena, 17410 Sports Complex Rd, Okeechobee, FL
Originally from Washington state, Deanna Butler received her BA in Archaeological Sciences from the University of Washington in 2014. Two years later, Deanna moved to South Florida. Soon, she began working for the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office. Deanna was the THPO’s Archaeological Collections Assistant from 2017-2021. While at the THPO, Deanna worked to preserve, support, and process the Tribe’s archaeological collection. She often wrote the popular Artifact of the Month series, and worked on many community and educational outreach programs. She lives in Fort Myers, FL with her husband, son, and dog.