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FSU shows Osceola isn't just a mascot

The school will offer a class on the Seminole chief in the wake of a controversy over its football rituals.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VANSICKLER
Published July 27, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - Florida State University 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 American Indian studies program.

"We could build a real program, with the Seminole tribe at the core," said Jumonville, a longtime FSU professor.

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 doctorate from FSU, will focus on how the Seminole nation developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, and on its relationships 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.

Versen also hopes to bring in a Seminole tribe attorney to discuss the concept of sovereignty.

"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 until FSU president T.K. Wetherell urged them several months ago to get moving, there wasn't momentum.

"In the history department, we just had not put that much emphasis on Native American studies generally," Jumonville said.

Then came last year's mascot controversy.

In early August, the NCAA included FSU on a list of 18 colleges using "hostile and abusive" American Indian 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 Wetherell made clear he wanted a Seminoles history course developed.

"I think probably with the heat of the NCAA, this idea of offering a course became more front-burner than it was," Jumonville said.

In March, Jumonville and other history professors met with Seminole Tribe of Florida 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 American Indian tribes.

More than two dozen students have enrolled so far, Versen said.

Chad Corbitt, 19, a sophomore from Jacksonville, signed up after he spotted the class in the fall catalog.

"It sounded pretty cool," said Corbitt, who is majoring in business.

"I was surprised they didn't have a class before because I think it's really important to know," he said. "There's a reason why we call ourselves the Seminoles, and it isn't only because it's a cool mascot. So it's important to learn their history."

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

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or 813 226-3403.