Tribal talent


At last Friday’s gender-studies brown-bag lunch, assistant anthropology professor Jessica Cattelino traced the Florida Seminoles’ “princess pageant” from its 1950s origins to the present, explaining how it evolved from a conventional beauty competition to an exercise “defining, celebrating, and disciplining Seminole nationhood.” In 1972 swimsuit contests gave way to competing lectures on sewing patchwork clothing and tanning deer hides. Looking pretty, said Cattelino, grew less important than looking native. During pageants, “there’s lots of talk of ‘passing down,’ lots of linking to authoritative knowledge and claims to cultural continuity.” The competitions highlight Seminoles’ “overlapping citizenship” in their indigenous nation and America, a duality Cattelino described as “imbricated” rather than simply “a coexistence or a rivalry.”

The pageant’s cultural evolution coincides with the tribe’s foray into casino gambling and the establishment of constitutional governance for Florida’s six Seminole reservations. Once crowned, Miss Seminole carries out a host of diplomatic duties, attending pow-wows, meeting with political officials (both Indian and American), and presiding over civic functions. In the days leading up to the pageant, Cattelino said, contestants are drilled in public speaking, proper comportment, and tribal politics.

A masculine parallel to Miss Seminole can be found in war-veteran groups. Noting that American Indians serve in the U.S. military at a higher rate than any other ethnic group, Cattelino said Native American ideas about what it means to “be a man” often lead to the armed services. “There is an indigenous attachment to the land—and to defending the land—no matter who owns it.” For Florida Seminoles, a tribe that considers itself unconquered because its leaders never signed a peace treaty with the U.S. and its people fended off expulsion from Florida, “the warrior legacy is strong. … And if you want to be a warrior, you can’t really do that within the tribe.” Veteran status also gets many former soldiers elected to tribal offices. “Military prowess translates into political eligibility,” Cattelino said. She closed the lecture by fielding questions about the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act—which granted blanket citizenship to the country’s Native Americans—Seminole names, and the tribe’s custom of tracing heritage along matrilineal lines.


Assistant professor Jessica Cattelino (top). A Seminole veterans' color guard (bottom).

May 15, 2006