The eccentric ethnomusicologist and collector Harry Smith was filmed offering explanations and instructions to officials at the Smithsonian Institute about his vast donation, including a stack of Seminole patchwork. He explains that the fabric should not be touched (despite not using museum-typical, protective cotton gloves himself) unless, teasingly, Washington is bombed. The joke is strange, but obviously shows that he attributes a great deal of importance to these fabrics and their maker. He does not mention her name. Like many artifacts of Seminole handiwork, the artist is very hard to trace.
The video indirectly highlights a collective twentieth century fascination with Seminole patchwork (indeed Smith even made an experimental film of Seminole patchwork abstractions). The handicrafts, and people’s interest in them, bolstered the fledgling early economy of the Native American tribe in a time of need. After the Seminole Wars pushed the tribe to South Florida in the second half of the nineteenth century, there was some confusion about how to make money and the tribe turned to tourism and part of that budding economy were the dolls depicting Seminole in traditional garb.
Stills from Harry Smith’s Film Number 15, Seminole patchwork film, ca 1965-66, 16mm, silent, ca. 10 minutes. Courtesy Harry Smith Archives. www.harrysmitharchives.com
In the early 1930s, a Protestant Episcopal missionary named Deaconess Harriet Bedell visited the Seminole and was troubled by their plight. Like all Americans, the Seminole were adversely affected by the Great Depression, and were in desperate need of a new economic outlet. In the first half of the century, there were commercial Indian villages, administered by non-tribal members were opened as sort of “human zoos” where tourists could come and watch the Seminole doing daily work in their native environment. She famously declared that the tribe should “exhibit arts, not people,” and hoped to bolster more Seminole owned businesses that would proffer up homemade handiworks. Deaconess Bedell encouraged the arts amongst the Seminole, and was hugely influential in the thriving art early in the tradition of doll making.
The Curious Vault of the Miami Science Museum has a collection of six Seminole Dolls, which date to approximately the 1950s. Dolls like this have been sold to tourists since the early 1900s, and are still available for purchase today. Their bodies were initially made of wood until around the 1930s when the practice of using palmetto fibers took over. These palmetto husks were a native material hand pulled from South Florida trees and woven into a rudimentary representative human shape. The Seminole preferred this material, and Historian Dorothy Downs suggests that it was favored because it closely resembled the population’s skin hue. Both male and female dolls are always depicted with a red mouth, and white and black eyes shaped like a “+” sign.
When the dolls were first offered, they only portrayed women. They are typically depicted with no arms and a cylindrical base for legs because in real life the traditional dress of Seminole women typically covered their feet. Thus the dolls have large and ornately sewn capes, which are beautiful small-scale representations of the intricate and well-known Seminole patchwork. They also have a bonnet like black piece on their head to signify the elaborate yet common style of hair bun popular amongst the women at the time. They also typically have beautifully beaded necklaces.
In the 1940s, the Seminole started making male dolls due to popular demand, though they are less common because they were more difficult to make. This is because they have arms and legs, and are shown wearing what is known as a “Big Shirt”, a traditional piece of garb that actually went out of style amongst Seminole men around this same time. They are sometimes depicted wearing a scarf. The collection has two of these more rare male dolls.
The patchwork on both the men and women is sewn in rows, and can sometimes be read and attributed to particular artists, though today this expertise is almost solely left to the Seminole. Given the size of the fabric strips we can assume they were made specifically for dolls, showing that they were concentrating on the tourist industry.
Seminole dolls are said to be the best known amongst all Native American dolls, but their history is not inextricably linked with the Seminole people themselves. There is some evidence that the Seminole made dolls before 1900, however, the tradition of doll making was almost always driven by commerce, and primarily geared towards the tourist industry. This distinction is unique to the Seminole. There are two different histories in place because their people have a history and tradition, as well as a second history linked specifically with tourism.
These particular dolls in the Curious Vault are rare because a great deal of people saw these objects as throwaway tourist toys, and were treated as such. Another explanation for their rarity was briefly illuminated by Harry Smith’s unfounded fear that the Smithsonian’s team might over-handle the objects the patchworks and dolls are fragile. A lot of the early Seminole patchwork and handicrafts have since been lost due to the harsh terrain of the swamp, and that is why these Seminole dolls, so well preserved, are a special addition to the Curious Vault.
In 1949, the Miami Science Museum opened its doors initially as the Junior Museum, soon changing its name two years later to The Museum of Science and Natural History. An unwritten intent was to give the children of Miami exposure to people of different cultures, adding ethnographic and educational items to build local understanding, and these six exquisite little dolls would have been a way for young people to relate to the nearby Seminole tribe. In January of that same year, 1952, Deaconess Harriett Bedell donated the rare male Seminole Doll and a number of other important Seminole artifacts to the collection. The Curious Vault of the Miami Science Museum is proud to be able to make the connection between such a distinguished member of local history.
This Curious Vault post relied on the research of Dorothy Downs and David Blackard and the input of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Indian Museum.
Special thanks to Miami Science Museum Collections Intern Lynn Landy.
The Curious Vault is a bi-weekly online cabinet of curiosities featuring objects from the collection of the Miami Science Museum, presented by writer Nathaniel Sandler and Kevin Arrow, Art & Collections Manager. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.