Among the great Native American warriors are Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Geronimo, all of whom are associated with the United States’ western expansion and the resistance it provoked. These were figures of the Wild West and now part of America's mythology.
But another great Native warrior, often overlooked, was a man of mixed heritage who lived, loved and fought in the Southeast, who was born in Alabama, forced to resettle in Florida, led a guerrilla war against a U.S. Army and eventually was imprisoned on Sullivan's Island, where he died.
His name was Osceola.
And a new collaboration between Pure Theatre, artist-designer Jonathan Green, Native American musician Delia Chariker, African American musician Nina O’Bani, visual artist Kris Manning and others will bring Osceola to life at Battery Gadsden on Sullivan’s Island.
Four performances of this unusual theatrical event are planned for 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11, 12, 18 and 19. Carol Antman, founder and director of the former Creative Spark school, is producer.
Antman encountered Green at a dinner party a few years ago and suggested working together on something akin to the collaborative production about Edgar Allan Poe that she’d produced in 2008. “Back From the Grave” had presented interactive dramatizations of Poe's poems and stories inside Fort Moultrie. Maybe this new piece about Osceola could be similarly staged.
Green loved the idea. He had spent 25 years in Florida and knew about Seminole history. He was fascinated by the diversity of the community and the interactions between Native Americans and Africans, and disgusted by the profound racism that infected U.S. policy toward indigenous people, he said.
“Let’s have it be a wedding,” Green told Antman. “That’s far more inclusive.” And it would put Osceola's half-black wife Morning Dew front and center in the story, along with African culture.
Thus the title, “Osceola’s Muse,” Green said. The muse is Morning Dew, a “tremendously strong, important partner.”
Many Native Americans escaping conflict and disease in the second half of the 18th century fled to Florida. These migrants included the Creek people, members of the Yamasee tribe of South Carolina, the Muscogee of the Southeastern woodlands and the Chickasaw of Georgia.
When enslaved Africans escaped the plantations of South Carolina and Georgia, they sometimes ended up among the new conglomerate of Native American communities dominated by the Creek tribe and called Seminole.
In a series of guerrilla wars, the Seminoles resisted the government's efforts to relocate them. One of the most important leaders of the Second Seminole War, 1835-42, was Osceola (sometimes spelled Oceola or Asseola), a man of mixed heritage who was born Billy Powell in Alabama in 1804, grew up Creek and became a refugee at age 10 after the Creek War, an effort by the U.S. government to divide and conquer the Creek people of southern Alabama and seize millions of acres of territory.
Osceola and his family moved to Florida. When he was 14, militias led by Gen. Andrew Jackson pushed through the state burning villages. Osceola was displaced again, and moved this time to the Tampa area where the teenager came of age in a tribal ceremony called the Green Corn Dance, consuming a black herbal drink and chanting ritual songs. He shed his birth name and adopted a new one, Asi Yaholo, “black drink singer,” which was corrupted by whites and transformed into the name Osceola.
At around 22 years old, he met and married Morning Dew, who was proficient in English. She would serve as Osceola’s interpreter.
Catherine Nelson is founder of Keepers of the Word, an intertribal, interdenominational outreach ministry. She said the presentation of “Osceola’s Muse” is a good opportunity to raise awareness about Native American culture in South Carolina, and about the mixing of tribes and races that resulted in the Seminole people.
“It is part of South Carolina history, which is not taught in the schools,” the former public school educator said. “A lot of people do not recognize that we have nine state-recognized tribes, one federally recognized tribe, plus four to five native communities that prefer not to be recognized.”
These tribes often hold pow-wows to celebrate their heritage and keep young people connected to the culture, she said.
“There is very much an active indigenous community in the state, over 40,000 (people)," Nelson said. The U.S. Census reports about 25,000 Native American and Alaskan Natives living in South Carolina, but that number likely is too low since some native people are of mixed race or fully assimilated into white culture and do not identify themselves as indigenous, Nelson said.
The state includes members of many different native tribes, not just those associated with the Southeast, because of family or work-related interstate migration, she added. Nelson hails from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan but married a Navy man who was stationed in South Carolina.
Native Americans gained U.S. citizenship and the right to vote in 1924 with passage of the Indian Citizenship Act under President Calvin Coolidge (though the state-by-state fight persisted until 1962). They gained the right to free expression of their cultural heritage in 1978 with passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. South Carolina extended legal recognition of its various Native tribes in 2005.
The delay in extending full rights to Native Americans has had enormous repercussions, Nelson said. Indigenous people have been denied full and equal access to U.S. institutions and have struggled to secure quality education and good jobs. Without legal designations, Native Americans have not been able to apply for grants and other funding available to other minority communities, Nelson said.
“Telling the history of Oceaola is one more avenue in which to say, ‘We’re here, we have a history, we have made contributions and we can continue to make contributions as citizens of South Carolina,’ ” she said.
Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828 and quickly pushed the Indian Removal Bill through Congress. The Seminoles were in the way of American expansion, and government officials worried that the community was attracting too many runaway slaves who shared similar grievances, and that could enlarge the community and strengthen its resistance, according to U.S. park ranger Thomas Sobol, an expert on the life of Osceola. Jackson sought to forcefully relocate the Seminoles west of the Mississippi.
Osceola feared this would destroy his culture and lead to the capture and re-enslavement of Black Seminoles, including Morning Dew.
In 1836, he led a guerrilla force woefully outnumbered but relatively effective in hobbling the government's efforts. In October 1837, a truce was called, and Osceola and others were invited to the negotiating table.
Arriving at the peace talks under a white flag, Osceola was arrested and imprisoned, first at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Fla., then at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, where his health, already impacted by malaria, deteriorated quickly. He died on Jan. 30, 1838, at age 34.
Sharon Graci of Pure Theatre said the production, which is directed by Kamille Hayes, consists of three stages where scenes will be presented simultaneously and repeatedly. Each scene starts with Gullah dancing and concludes with Native American dancing. “Osceola’s Muse” will culminate with a fourth, final scene. About a dozen actors and 20 musicians and dancers are involved.
“It’s not linear, but we’re still finding components that make it satisfying to the audience so people walk away feeling they’ve learned something,” Graci said.
Antman said the play raises important questions that remain relevant today.
“I think what interests us about this is that it draws a parallel to the issues we’re facing in this country today: the question of whose country is this, questions of immigration and cultural understanding,” she said. “Those are the issues we hope people will leave talking about.”