By Brenda Norrell
Copyright 1997 Norrell
THE EVERGLADES, FL. - The Green Corn Dance defines who the traditional Seminole people are. For 250 years it was held in a remote cypress swamp and pine forest north of Lake Okeechobee. Now, the land has been sold and most of it cleared and drained for citrus groves and agriculture.
Danny Billy, spokesperson for the traditional Seminole Nation, said the people need a permanent ecological preserve to continue their traditional way of life, including the Green Corn Dance.
"It is the heart and soul of our way of life," Billy said.
The traditional Seminole Nation, unlike the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc., is not federally recognized and receives no federal government funds.
"We work for what we get," Billy said.
Billy is among 20 American Indian community activists featured in "People of the Seventh Fire," recently released by Akwe:kon Press of Cornell University. The book is edited by Dagmar Thorpe, with a forward by Vine Deloria, Jr.
It tells the story of traditional Native people working to preserve their culture, protect Mother Earth and build strong communities.
Hopi Navajo photographer Larry Gus circled North America to photograph Carrie Dann, fighting to maintain Western Shoshone land in Nevada, Dine' Larry Emerson, using traditional Navajo principles in circles of micro entrepreneurs and Anishinaabe Renee Senogles in Minnesota, voicing the struggles of American Indian women.
"People of the Seventh Fire," features Juanita Perley, Maliseet from southeastern Canada. With her son Perry, chief of the Turtle Clan, Perley is struggling to reintroduce traditional principles into the tribal government.
Perley said today's mock tribal governments are more like a puppet of the white man's government. The focus is on material things, rather than spiritual solutions. But Perley said the traditions will survive, as they have done during the past 500 years of persecution.
Like many of the activists interviewed, Perley speaks the facts. During a Bicentennial she was asked to talk about the good that Canada brought to the Indian people.
"In this short two hundred years, you've turned our Mother Earth into a huge garbage dump. Our rivers are nothing but sewers."
Perley said North America was paradise for peasants arriving from Europe; their leaders saw only dollar signs. As churches were built, the spiritual instruments of the Native people were taken and destroyed.
"Baptism is like an exorcism to Indian people," she said. "It takes a long time to remove the cross they burn on your forehead. Once it does come off and your spirit walks with you as one again, it is easier to find the old ways."
Perley knew of the racism and abuse in 1947, when she arrived on the Tobique Reserve at the age of eight. In the residential schools, operated by nuns and priests, Indian children were the victims of physical and sexual abuse. They were forbidden to speak their language.
"The language was pounded out," she said. "The government knew. They knew how to bring down the Indian nation."
In the 1970s, a door opened for Perley and others during a visit by the Iroquois traditional travelers, the White Roots of Peace. She later joined Red Power and AIM. When people told her the culture was dead, she refused to believe it and began rebuilding the nation.
"I guess I still have a little of that war spirit in me," she said.
Jim Dumont, Ojibwe, said the book gains its title from a prophecy.
"'People of the Seventh Fire' refers to an Anishinaabe prophecy which speaks of the emergence of a new people who will retrace the steps of their ancestors. It is said that if the people are strong in their belief, the sacred fire of the Anishinaabe people will be rekindled," Dumont said.
Meanwhile in Florida, Billy said Indian people are being oppressed to the point of losing their culture. But efforts to maintain it must come from the heart.
"When you get to the point of choosing your way of life according to a system of money, you are in trouble. You are not who you are anymore."
As the marshes and wildlife of the traditional Seminole homeland decline, Billy said the role of the American Indians must be taken seriously.
"We are the caretakers of the Creator's creation."
Billy said the survival of all people depends on the Indian people fulfilling their responsibility to protect the earth. If the Indian people fail in this trust, it will be taken from them.
Billy said the way of life of red people is like a clay cup and that of the white man is like a Styrofoam cup. The clay cup takes a lot of care, the Styrofoam cup, which is disposable, does not.
The Styrofoam cup represents a way of life which is without true laws.
"We are fighting to live our way of life as it is," Billy said.
"People of the Seventh Fire" includes interviews with Akwesasne Mohawk Tom Porter, Paiute Vivienne Caron Jake, Sauk and Mesquakie Henrietta Massey, Anishinaabe Jim Dumont, Okanagan Jeanette Armstrong, Hia Ced O'odham Floyd Flores, Cayuse, Paluse and Nez Perce Tessie Williams, Karuk Julian Lang, Karuk, Yurok and Hupa Lyn Risling, Tets'ugeh Pueblo Poquin Downey, Vicky Downey and Priscilla Vigil, Lakota Charlotte Black Elk, Dine' Philmer Bluehouse, Blackfeet Darrell Kipp, Hawaiian Mililani Trask, Zuni Pueblo Jim Enote and Lakota Gerald One Feather. John Seneca, Mohawk, wrote the afterward.
The book is available from Akwe:kon Press, Cornell University American Indian Program, Ithaca, New York.