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    Seminole matriarch shaped reservation

    Ruby Tiger Osceola, who was the oldest living Florida Seminole, strove to preserve tribal culture.

    By JAY CRIDLIN
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 15, 2002


    TAMPA -- The Seminole Tribe of Florida has six reservations throughout the state, but only one had a guiding presence like Ruby Tiger Osceola.

    Mrs. Osceola, the oldest living Florida Seminole and matriarch of the Seminole tribe's Tampa reservation, died Thursday at the age of 106.

    Mrs. Osceola presided over a lineage of more than 100 children and grandchildren -- remarkable, given that when she was born in 1895, there were fewer than 360 Seminoles statewide.

    "She was an idol," said Lilla Henry, one of Mrs. Osceola's granddaughters. "We compared her to the Queen Mother for us. She was our matriarch."

    It was only with Mrs. Osceola's blessing that the Seminole Tribe came to a 9-acre reservation in Tampa in 1980. After then-Chief James E. Billie came to her with the idea, she moved 17 members of her family from Bradenton to help start the reservation. Today, there are nearly 200 Seminoles living on or near those 9 acres.

    "Whenever there were any major decisions, she was asked first what her thoughts were," said Keith Simmons, who is married to another of Mrs. Osceola's grandchildren. "She moved everybody up here, and it was a better life for them."

    Henry said Mrs. Osceola was "one of the very few last traditionals," a woman who dedicated her life to teaching Seminole culture to each of her descendants: seven children, 31 grandchildren (including five who died while young), 59 great-grandchildren, and five great-great-grandchildren.

    "She wanted to make sure that they were all strong in their culture," Henry said.

    Simmons said Mrs. Osceola was always dedicated to her large family. "She never missed anybody's birthdays or Christmases," he said. "Even if it was just a little pair of socks for an infant, she would get them something."

    For much of her life, Mrs. Osceola lived in a thatch hut called a chickee on an authentic Indian camp. She wore nothing but traditional Seminole clothing and never spoke English.

    Mrs. Osceola's son-in-law Bobby Henry -- like her, a traditional Seminole medicine person -- said he and Mrs. Osceola were adamant about preserving the Seminole culture.

    "We never let go of the tradition," he said. "We try to keep it in the same words and Seminole language."

    In the 1850s, Mrs. Osceola's grandparents were among the 200 or so Seminoles who chose to remain in the Everglades despite government efforts to push American Indians toward the West. They kept the tribe deep in the swamps, where Mrs. Osceola was born.

    She supported seven children by picking flowers and working in the fields of local farmers. In 1960, her husband, Frank, was murdered, a crime that Henry says is still unsolved, and Mrs. Osceola was left to raise her still-young children alone.

    That year she moved to Naples, and later, to Bradenton. In 1980, construction workers uncovered Indian bones in Hillsborough County, opening the door for a Seminole reservation off Orient Road. Billie approached Mrs. Osceola to ask if she would be willing to help found the reservation, and she said yes.

    Since then, the reservation's population has steadily increased, and the tribe erected a high-stakes bingo hall.

    The tribe recently negotiated a deal with Hard Rock Cafe International to develop a multimillion-dollar resort and casino on the property. Ironically, demolition of the reservation began Thursday -- the day Mrs. Osceola passed away.

    "Her death is literally going to be the last event on the reservation, which is sad," Lilla Henry said. "I don't think Grandma wanted to live 'out there' in the white man's world. I don't think she wanted to be away from her reservation, her chickee, her culture.

    "It's pretty sad that she dies, and so does the reservation," she said. "She opened it, and now she's closing it."

    Mrs. Osceola was preceded in death by her husband, Frank Osceola; her son, Albert Osceola; and five grandchildren, Timmy Osceola, Jimmy Henry, K.D. Henry, Cadie Henry and Lewis Cubis.

    Her survivors include her daughters, Annie Osceola Henry, of Tampa, Linda O'Henry, of Seffner, Maggie Garcia, of Brandon, Nancy Frank, of Lakeland, Susie Osceola, of Brandon, and Peggy Cubis, of Ellington; her brother, Joe Henry Tiger, of Brighton; her sister, Mary Tiger, of Hollywood; 26 grandchildren; 59 great-grandchildren; and five great-great-grandchildren.

    Services will be today at 2 p.m. at Sunset Memorial Gardens. Visitation will be from 1 to 2 p.m. at the cemetery.

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