FSU adds Seminoles 101

One year after mascot flap, university offers first course on Indian tribe’s history.

Published July 26, 2006

Florida State students know Chief Osceola as their football mascot, a stoic figure in war paint who rides onto the home field atop an appaloosa named Renegade.

But history professors want students to know that Chief Osceola was a real man, the resistance leader of the Seminole Indians, not just a student dressed in traditional Indian garb on game day.

So this fall semester, one year after NCAA officials blasted FSU’s football ritual as offensive to the Seminole Indians, the university will offer its first-ever course on the tribe’s history.History department chairman Neil Jumonville  said it could be the first step toward establishing a long-overdue Native American studies program.

“We could build a real program, with the Seminole tribe at the core,” he said.

For now, FSU is offering “History of the Seminoles and Southeastern Tribes, Pre-Contact to Present,” an undergraduate course for up to 45 students.

Course instructor Chris Versen, an adjunct instructor who recently earned his Ph.D. from FSU, will focus on how the Seminole nation developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, and on its relationship with the federal government and with other Indian tribes.

Students will read books about the long-running Seminole wars. They will learn about Betty Mae Tiger Jumper, the first female head of the Seminoles’ Tribal Council.

“Anything that gives students a better idea of the history of their state is good,” Versen said. “And the Seminoles are very interested in having their history told.”

Jumonville said history professors have talked for years about the need to tell the Seminoles’ story, but “we just had not put that much emphasis on Native American studies generally.”

Then came last year’s mascot controversy. In early August, the NCAA included FSU on a list of 18 colleges using “hostile and abusive” Native American references.

NCAA leaders took FSU off the list only after Seminole Tribe of Florida leaders made clear their support for FSU’s Chief Osceola tradition.

Then FSU President T.K. Wetherell made clear he wanted a Seminoles history course developed.

In March, Jumonville and other history professors met with Seminole leaders, including the cultural director and an anthropologist, to discuss the course.

Both sides agreed that students should learn the Seminoles’ history in the larger context of the Southeast, and U.S. policies and Supreme Court decisions that affected Native American tribes.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Tallahassee businessman Bill Durham said of the class. Durham, an FSU alumnus, created the Chief Osceola game-day tradition 30 years ago. “It really should have been done sooner.”