A Princess In Patchwork: Sewing For The Miss Florida Seminole Princess Pageant

Dec 26, 2015
Originally published on December 28, 2015 1:24 pm

The Seams, an occasional NPR series on clothing as culture, has been reporting a series about Florida Seminole Indian patchwork and its heritage and use in tribal life. Read the first installment in this series, "Osceola At The Fifty Yard Line."

Twelve young women in their teens and early twenties are walking on a stage surrounded by twinkling lights that look like a starry night sky, wearing eye-catching dresses of Seminole Indian patchwork. They're contestants in the 58th annual Miss Florida Seminole Princess Pageant. The winner will be the tribe's ambassador to the wider world.

Lewis Gopher was one of the emcees at the pageant, which takes place the last weekend in July. He explains what patchwork is to the crowd at tribal headquarters in Hollywood, Fla.

"Sewing is very important to our people," Gopher says. "There are traditional outfits, which is all cotton, but also new materials like rayon and lace. It's evolved, just like we have, and we put our own twist on patchwork garments."

Seminole patchwork is not the patchwork we associate with quilting bees and bedspreads. Think of it almost more like cotton origami, squares of cloth rolled and folded into symbols: flags, crosses, bird, traditional elements. The symbols are sewn into strips, and these strips are sewn together to make garments like jackets, vests and skirts. Many Seminole tribal members wear patchwork daily, and nearly always wear it for special occasions like pageants.

Making patchwork is intricate and time-consuming, and a finished garment can cost hundreds of dollars. For reasons of tradition and economy, pageant contestants often learn to make it. Twenty-year-old contestant Alexis Jumper is one of them.

"I go about picking the colors, and then from there, I would cut the strips and everything in the colors I want, and I can decide if I want to be more traditional, or I can go for a more flashy approach to it," she says. "I love shiny."

Alexis comes from Hollywood, the largest of the Seminole reservations and communities in South Florida. For her, the pageant is more than a rite of passage — it's a career step up the tribal hierarchy.

"I want to get a job here at the tribe because I want to one day work up to Secretary and then one day I want to strive to be Chairman," she says.

Betty Mae Jumper was the first woman elected chairman of any federally recognized American Indian tribe.

The Princess Pageant began when the Seminoles were working to gain federal recognition, back in the late 1950's. Pageant Director Wanda Bowers tells the story of the young secretary who was accompanying tribal elders to Washington, DC. She tired of a certain question.

"They'd ask, 'Is she your princess?'," says Bowers. "She would always say 'I'm the secretary-treasurer of the tribe. I'm their translator, their note-taker' Finally she told the chief, 'I'm not gonna be recognized as the princess anymore. I want you to start a princess contest so that we can have an official princess to be recognized as our ambassador."

By 1960, the tribe held its first such contest, and it's become increasingly traditional over time. (The swimsuit contest was dropped after the first season.) Bowers, 64, won the pageant in '68 and '69. She's has been directing the Miss Florida Seminole Princess Pageant since 1991. With the Jr. Miss Pageant added, young women 13 to 25 can participate. Princesses travel — a lot.

Alexis is one of several contestants who made some of her outfits. "I learned all my sewing at the [Art and] Culture Center here in Hollywood. Sewing is something that I really love doing. It's one of my major hobbies that I do every day."

The invention of the sewing machine changed the way the tribe looked. When the Singer sewing machine came into existence in the 19th century, the Seminoles embraced it. The outline of the long skirts and capes emulated European dress — and kept mosquitoes at bay. By the 20th century, tourists sought the Seminole patchwork, too, and that brought in money for the tribe.

The sewing room at the Arts and Culture Center is always busy, especially around the Princess Pageant and other festival times. It's lined with bright skeins of thread, rickrack and bias tape, and banks of sewing machines — even a display of old hand-cranked models.

One of the seamstresses in the sewing room on a weekday morning is Shannon Tiger.

"I'm making Fire," she says, of the cloth piecework she's running on a sewing machine. "This pattern comes from when you start with [another pattern called] Rain, ... but you cut it into two squares, and then you cut it and put it them together at an angle and then you get Fire."

For another seamstress, patchwork is also a business. Ashley Cypress is a member of the closely related Miccosukee Tribe. She sews for natives and non-native people alike. She uses social media expertly, especially Instagram. She's dressed a lot of pageant contestants.

"They'll come to me with a picture and say, 'Do you think you can make something like this?' I'm like, 'I'll try it!' Pinterest is like my best friend," she says, laughing.

One historian says that what makes Seminole patchwork so appealing is the way the patterns move: in the wind or when someone is walking. Arrayed on a stage, the patterns on the young women glow, as if they were part of a neon Pop-art kaleidoscope — they're often made from modern fabrics today like satin and velvet. In the case of Alexis Jumper's skirt and cape, she's used sequins and lace.

Alexis greets the pageant audience in Creek first, then English. "Hello and good evening, everyone. My name is Alexis Jumper. I am 20 years old and from the Hollywood Reservation."

Alexis came in second runner-up.

Tribal members, like Wanda Bowers, call the contestants the "life-givers" of the next generation. Her daughter, Christine McCall is also a mentor to the contestants and the 2005 Miss Florida Seminole Princess. She reminds the competitors that their role is to represent the tribe to the outside world.

"I have to remind the girls that, yes, you know who we are, and you know, you might meet another person in Florida who knows who we are, but when you leave this state, more than likely they're not going to know who we are and we have to educate them. That might see a beautiful skirt, but they don't understand why we wear it," she says.

They wear it because it identifies this small tribe as Seminole. And it sparks the curiosity of anyone who sees it. If yours has been sparked, check out The Seminole Tribal Fair and Pow-Wow at the Hollywood Hard Rock Casino, the first weekend in February.

Reporting for this story comes in part from the Florida Humanities Council and Florida Cultural Resources, Tarpon Springs.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally, today, we hear again from Jacki Lyden, host of The Seams podcast, which tells fastening stories through the clothing people wear. Lately, she's been telling us about the Seminole Indian tribe of Florida, and a key part of their identity is their distinctive patchwork clothing. Now, it isn't what you normally think of as patchwork though - the kind you find on quilts. It's more like cotton origami - squares of cloth rolled and folded into symbols like flags and crosses and birds. They make up strips, which are then sewn together to make garments. Some tribal members wear it every day. But just about everybody who identifies as Seminole wears it on special occasions, like the Miss Florida Seminole Princess Pageant, which is where Jacki Lyden takes us now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This evening, Allegra is wearing a modern traditional long dress with a short cape. Skyla is wearing a beautiful traditional dress in white, pink, black and gray. Tonight, Alexis is wearing a purple all-cotton traditional dress with medicine-color bias tape.

JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: Twelve young woman in their teens and early 20s are walking on a stage surrounded by twinkling lights that look like a starry night sky. They're contestants in the 58th annual Miss Florida Seminole Princess Pageant. Lewis Gopher is one of the tribe's emcees. He explained what patchwork is.

LEWIS GOPHER: The designs haven't always been around. You know, the more older-style and the traditional is just the basic all-cotton

LYDEN: Twenty-year-old contestant Alexis Jumper made a couple of dresses for the pageant. We caught up with her at the dress rehearsal.

ALEXIS JUMPER: So I go about picking the colors, and I look at what would look best with each other. Then from there, I would put the strips and everything in the colors I want, and then I can decide if I want it to be more traditional or if I want to go for a more flashy approach to it.

LYDEN: Alexis comes from Hollywood, the largest of the Seminole reservations in South Florida. For her, the pageant is more than a rite of passage. It's a career step up the tribal hierarchy.

JUMPER: I'm going to get a job here in the tribe because I want to one day work up to secretary. And then hopefully one day, I want to strive to be chairman.

LYDEN: Her great-grandmother Betty Mae Jumper was the first female elected chairman of any federally-recognized American Indian tribe. Alexis makes her own pageant clothes because she enjoys the tradition of sewing.

JUMPER: I learned all my sewing at the Culture Center here in Hollywood. Sewing is definitely something that I really love doing. It's one of my major hobbies that I do every day.

LYDEN: The sewing machine changed the way the tribe looked. When the Singer sewing machine came into existence in the 19th century, the Seminoles embraced it. Today, the sewing room at the Cultural Center in Hollywood, Fla., is always busy, especially around the Princess Pageant and other festival times. One of the seamstresses in the sewing room on this weekday morning is Shannon Tiger.

SHANNON TIGER: I'm making fire. It comes from - you start, like, with - it's called rain. You - it's like two - it's just, like, two squares but you cut it at an angle. And then you put them together and then you make the fire.

LYDEN: For another seamstress, patchwork is also a business. Ashley Cypress is a member of the closely-related Miccosukee Tribe. She sews for natives and non-native people alike. She uses social media expertly, including Facebook. She's dressed a lot of pageant contestants.

ASHLEY CYPRESS: They'll come to me, and then they'll show me a picture. And they're like do you think you can make something like this? I was like, I'll try it. If I see something in the store or on Pinterest - Pinterest is, like, my best friend (laughter).

LYDEN: One historian says that what makes Seminole patchwork so appealing is the way the patterns move in the wind or when someone is walking. Arrayed on a stage, the patterns on the young women glow, as if they were a part of a neon pop-art kaleidoscope. They're often made now from modern fabrics like satin and velvet, and in the case of Alexis Jumper's skirt, sequins and lace.

JUMPER: (Speaking Creek). Hello and good evening, everyone. My name is Alexis Jumper. I am 20 years old from Hollywood Reservation.

LYDEN: Alexis came in second runner-up. Tribal members call the contestants the life-givers of the next generation. The winner is the tribe's ambassador to the world. Pageant coach and former Miss Florida Seminole Princess, Christine McCall.

CHRISTINE MCCALL: I have to remind the girls that yes, you know who we are and, you know, you might meet another person in Florida who knows who we are. But when you leave this state, more than likely they're going to not know who we are, and we have to educate them. They might see a beautiful skirt, but they're - they don't understand why we wear it.

LYDEN: They wear it because it identifies this small tribe as Seminole, and it sparks the curiosity of anyone who sees it. Indeed, if your's has been sparked, check out the Seminole Tribal Fair and Pow-Wow at the Hollywood Hard Rock Casino the first weekend in February. For NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden.

MARTIN: And Jacki Lyden is here with us now. Jacki, this is all fascinating. I want to hear more about that patchwork. But the first thing I wanted to ask you is how did this Princess Pageant get started? I hear there's a really interesting story about that.

LYDEN: Well, Michel, there is. First of all, recognize this is a small tribe - 4,000 people - not as well known as big tribes of 100,000-plus or more. So when the Seminole tribe of Florida was federally recognized in the late 1950s, there was a young secretary named Laura Mae Osceola who accompanied the tribal council, who were all male, to Washington, D.C. And she just got tired of condescendingly being referred to by bureaucrats there as - oh, you must be the princess. So she suggested rather boldly to the tribal elders that they hold a contest for the reservations and communities and select a princess who would be the tribe's ambassador forevermore. And one of the very first princesses is still around today to guide young contestants.

MARTIN: So tell me a little bit more about the patchwork. Is this - is this one of those traditional arts that has been revived in a way in part because of events like the pageant, where it's showcased?

LYDEN: Absolutely. I mean, I don't know if it was ever really on the way out, but it's certainly having a renaissance. It used to be an income stream when the Seminoles depended heavily on the tourist industry. Today, kids in all the Seminole elementary schools are taught to make it - and this is interesting, Michel - this includes young boys. Seminole and Miccosukee seamstresses just teach it to young women and men at home, in their own homes. And anyone who attends a Seminole event - the tribe has a calendar on their website - can buy it, any one of us. Just bring a lot of cash, Michel, because it is beautiful and you'll want it and an outfit can cost as much as a thousand dollars..

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK, so bring a lot of cash. That's Jacki Lyden, founder of The Seams, the podcast. Jacki, thank you.

LYDEN: It was a real pleasure. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I do want to mention that the story was reported with help from the Florida Council for the Humanities. And if you want to see examples of the patchwork, just look for The Seams at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.