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Do You Speak Seminole?

Updated: Aug 16, 2020

On a humidity-rich night in September 2019, in Brackettville, Texas, I was sitting outside with about 30 other people, talking about everything and anything. It was the night before we would disperse across the country and overseas, after spending three days living, working and breaking bread together during Seminole Days. Three women between the ages of 85 and 92 – our Elders - were doing what women of a certain age do: reminisce about the old days and the old folk, about who recently died and where, and how to use a walker to get exercise on the sidewalk. They were all Scout descendants and kin, somehow related to each other. (I’d guess they could be 6th to 8th cousins, but that sort of thing doesn't matter. Kin is kin).

One of the women, Mrs. Ethel Warrior, pointed her cane in the direction of a group of men and said “who duh dat?” She was asking the name of one of the men. I pointed out that she’d spoken that “funny English” that they all said they didn’t speak, Seminole. (The language is called Afro-Seminole Creole, but to them it has always been simply called Seminole.) She giggled, seemingly ignoring what I’d said, and asked the two other women, Mrs. Mary Johnson (my mother) and Mrs. Rodessa Jones, “Do you speak Seminole?” They laughed, said they “didn’t speak that stuff” and then began saying some words and phrases with a lilt in their voices. Entertaining us chillen (aged 84 and under), they would use a word in a sentence and then tell a story about it. One story involved settin’ ups (wakes), chooneh (sex) and the birth of babies nine months after the wake. I watched them giggling like the teenagers they’d once been.

Only Mrs. Warrior had spoken Afro-Seminole Creole with any fluency and she said she’d lost the ability to do so because she had no one to speak it with. She was of the last generation that was allowed to speak Afro Seminole Creole regularly; the next generations were taught not to speak it. She, the only Elder I knew who could speak the language, died last month, and took with her some of the sounds, meanings, and memories of the community. It’s not uncommon to lose someone at the age of 92, but it’s a blow when there are less than a dozen people alive who remember “the old times”, listening to the stories told by the old folk, attending the one room school house that was blessedly segregated, ruefully remembering how to hide in plain sight, understanding what it takes to build and preserve a Community.

I do not speak Seminole. I was not raised and do not live in the town where those women were born and grew up, Brackettville, Texas. Yet, that place is a touchstone for me, a place that informs and sustains parts of my identity as a Black Seminole. Every year, during the third weekend of September, descendants return to speak with Elders, meet old and new-found kin, share in good fellowship and celebrate being descendants. Brackettville becomes a place where we can just Be.

(To learn more about the Scouts and how they and their families settled in Brackettville, TX and Nacimiento de los Negros in (Coahuila, Mexico), read The Origins of the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts.)

I founded this Society, with the support of many others, BECAUSE I do not speak Seminole. A friend, and respected linguist, told me that it’s not too late to learn. I am highly skeptical but know to never say never. What I am certain of, is that the history can be preserved, previously written articles and research can be revisited when new information is learned, and we can capture the oral histories of our Elders and of those with whom they shared their memories.

As I write this, my heart is heavy because I will not see many elders or kinfolk this year. (Courtesy of Covid-19). I do spend hours talking to a few of them over the phone, usually about topics we’ve talked about before. They are happy to talk and I am happy to listen. It’s never too late to record anyone’s memories about anything. It’s not an activity limited to a specific culture or event; it’s a way that anyone can preserve lived history. Do you know what games your great grandmother played as child? Where did she go to school and who taught her? Who raised your grandfather? How many people lived with him? What kind of work did the grownups do? What are your aunt’s favorite stories about growing up? Who courted her? What kinds of clothes did everyone wear? Who cleaned them? Do you speak Seminole? Seeking the answers to such questions, or just sitting quietly as someone tells a story, can provide you a wealth of information about the life lessons learned over time that ultimately shaped who you are today.

I’m excited about this adventure upon which we are embarking together! If you are interested in submitting a blog, please send me an email at info@seminolenegroinidianscouts.org.

Best,

Sarah


Mother: Mary Greene Johnson /|Grandmother: Sarah Jefferson Lewis / Great-grandfather: John Jefferson / Great-great-grandfather: Joe Coon / Great-great-great-grandfather: Chief John Horse

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