Category: Analysis


The book under review is the last volume of Harry Kersey’s trilogy on the Indians of the Southeast and deals to some extent with government policies and Seminole responses.  Kersey’s work is representative of difficulties involved in any analysis of native Indians’ political sovereignty and cultural assimilation in modern times. It highlights the complexities that the usage of such word as “sovereignty” entails, due to it has different meanings resulting from the Indian experience. In summary, this volume presents an analysis of how the Seminoles, who are socially and politically fragmented, have changed themselves into a new polity and discusses social transformations that have accompanied and facilitated this development.

Question 1

The first part of Kersey’s analysis provides details how the Seminole tribe and its allies encounter congressional termination efforts and fare under harsh termination circumstances and the relocation policies of Dillon Myer and subsequent Indian commissioners. When the Congress tried to terminate the group, forces organizing against this became a launching pad for political activism. It was partly a result of the fear of the future termination attempts that the Seminoles developed a central tribal government for the residents of three separate Florida reservations, as well as for off-reservation dwellers. The way for this political activism was paved, when the coalition of largely assimilated Christian cattle owners interested in setting up a tribal cattle herd had spearheaded a campaign organized under the Indian New Deal or the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) in the 1930s.  Thus, the foundation for the creation of a tribal constitution and a tribal council in 1957 was laid. Kersey argues that this political change stemmed from and at the same time stimulated social changes. The initiative to develop a central tribal government came from the Seminoles converted to Christianity, many of whom were women, who began to play a bigger part in tribal politics empowered by this process. The need to effectively deal with the white society eroded the power of elder traditionalists. Consequently, a new array of leaders emerged, who laid no claim to traditional leadership, but continued to steer the course that bridged the world of the Seminoles and that of the white society. Younger Seminoles with more formal education in public schools and colleges and influenced by the activist movements of the 1960s moved into tribal politics, usually under the flag of Indian self-determination. Kersey demonstrates that traditions have given way to accommodation in a number of ways (Kersey, 1996). The traditional consensual style of politics was replaced with European forms of elections and political governance, which proved to take less time. This new form of government provided greater opportunities for women to hold official leadership positions. It also prompted people to think of themselves not as of members of a particular band or reservation community, but of a cohesive tribe.

Question 2

Concerning the question of the path followed to fiscal sovereignty, Kersey wrote that changes for the better began with the election of Howard Tommie in 1971 (Kersey, 1996). When the latter could not find an economic base for tribal activities outside restrictive federal sources, he oversaw the tribal institutionalization of smoke shops and unregulated high-stakes bingo. By this time, the United States had abandoned the policy of termination, switching towards tribal self-determination. Tommie took full advantage of this change in the policy direction, and under his leadership, the Seminoles began to sell cigarettes without state taxes. It brought millions of dollars of revenue. When the tribe had been offered mega-bingo, namely being freed of limitations imposed by the state, additional millions flowed in. For example, the tribal annual income rose from $600,000 in 1968 to $4,500,000 in 1977. Faced with legal troubles, the Seminoles received a reprieve, when the U.S. Supreme Court sustained their right to conduct these activities, due to reservations were considered sovereign lands. It was a landmark decision, because the government had not dealt with the Seminoles as sovereigns since the treaties of Paynes Landing and Fort Gibson in the 1830s. Due to Indian enterprises were not subject to state taxation and regulations, they generated a great income and put the tribe into the forefront of the Indian self-determination movement. In fact, Tommie’s foray into the economic activities of the Seminoles helped create a historical precedent for the Indians by establishing tribe’s rights to operate without state interference. Utilizing cash flows generated primarily from cigarettes and bingo, the Seminole tribe started making diverse investments that included the ownership of the Sheraton Hotel and various rental properties in addition to the development of reservation lands. It expanded the already existing tribal enterprises, such as commercial leases, cattle farms, and citrus business, which maintained profitability. As long as cash inflows from these areas remain high, the tribal government will not only be able to absorb the costs of social services that the federal bureaucracy provides, but also distribute dividends to its members and invest in the future. In summary, Kersey deems this path to Seminole’s fiscal sovereignty to be pivotal and asserts that continued economic development allows the Indians to control their own destiny (Kersey, 1996). 

Question 3

The Seminole Land Claims case really represented four interrelated claims that date back to 1950. Together with the East Big Cypress case, these legal troubles endured by the Seminoles reveal the complexity of relating federal claims to the Indian tradition. A number of groups in South Florida had nothing to do with the initial filing of the Seminole Land Claims case, and some even opposed it. The Seminole tribe claimed to get the total of approximately $48 million plus interests for lost lands (including the Everglades National Park). Conflicting tribal interests and different sovereignty agendas meant that there was no harmony or accord among various groups. Positions ranged from the ones opposing asking for any money at all due to the land was not for sale at any price to others filing their own claims that had nothing to do with the ones of any Florida Indian (Kersey, 1996). No federally recognized body represented the Seminole tribe, which failed to prevent federally imposed mandates from ignoring real differences in the sovereignty stories of different Seminole people. They had various claims against the federal government, as well as different sovereignty agendas pursuing their own interests. As a result, the Seminoles received the total of $50 million, with each of them getting approximately 25.6% of the total amount, and the tribe receiving about $9.5 million from this share. The East Big Cypress case also demonstrates the woes facing the Seminoles because of conflicting tribal interests and biases. This case dealt with water rights being more relevant to the Florida economy through agribusiness than land claims involving federal money only. Water rights directly control the viability of Florida agriculture.  Once again, competing tribal interests, conflicting sovereignty agendas, and the lack of unity among the Seminoles paved the way for the federal government to control the land through the 1987 compact with the tribe. It substituted regulations that were potentially much more valuable, subject to the decades of litigation, for specific sovereignty rights that enabled the tribe to gain increased access to water. However, it was within the federalized framework without taking into account the diversity of the Seminole people.

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According to Kersey, the Seminole’s sovereignty was exercised at different levels.  It was not something that Indian tribes simply had possessed at one time and then had partially lost before slowly regaining it again. He demonstrated this by pointing out that having never surrendered and without any relationships with the United States, the Seminoles really had nothing to terminate. The Florida land boom together with the prospect of termination moved these people to the position, where they had to assert their sovereignty, becoming organized, functioning, and having a stable economic base in the process. 

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