Blow, Blow Seminole Wind

Written in 1992

by Mark Renz

I couldn’t wait to get there. I had never set foot on Big Cypress Reservation in the Everglades, but for me it was a homecoming of sorts. Twenty-three years earlier, I had attended high school in nearby Clewiston. Seminole children from the Reservation were sometimes bused in as a group to roller-skated at my parents’ rink.

I was also apprehensive. I couldn’t shake this feeling of embarrassment, of shame. After all, was it not my European ancestors who had lied to, bribed, corrupted, forced from their land and murdered several generations of these people? Would they mistrust me on sight? Could I blame them if they didn’t welcome me with open arms?

I felt like current generations of my race were complicit too. Why had it taken until the 1960s to integrate our nation’s schools, to finally act on the age-old assertion that all humans are created equal? As I was maturing, why were Native Americans so often portrayed on television and in movies as ruthless savages, while we whites were the ones who were just and civilized? Why was I not taught as a child that while Christopher Columbus may have been a famous explorer, he was also guilty of genocide, ecocide and mass exploitation?

Then again, to believe that all Seminoles were saints while all Europeans were evil is not a complete representation of history. Some Seminoles owned slaves, although they generally treated African Americans far better than whites did. Seminoles were sometimes guilty of the same atrocities as whites. However, more often than not, their acts of violence were in response to violent aggression by whites.

Seminoles were environmentally friendly over 200 years ago, long before we whites coined the term. When it came to their overall respect and reverence for plant life, animal life and each other, modern day leaders could learn much from them. Seminoles looked upon the land, not as its possessor, but as a companion. They addressed all life as a “thou”, not an “it”.

As I followed up the rear of our six-vehicle motorcade in a rented Winnegago, I thought about why were here. Country singer John Anderson had written and recorded a song called “Seminole Wind”.

The song needed a video. And since it referred to the ghost of the most famous Seminole Indian, Osceola, what better place to film than the Big Cypress Reservation in the Florida Everglades? I was hired as a “Gator Scout”, by Anderson’s gifted PR man, Jim Della Croce, who was also a close friend. Jim knew I was a Florida natural history guide and wanted me to enlist some alligators who could ham it up in front of a camera. Luckily, there was a crew of union gators on standby at the Babcock Ranch where I worked. So following the main filming on the Reservation, we headed north to Charlotte County. The spot I picked was the "Gator Bridge", where 20-30 alligators hung out, always on the prowl for tasy fish or chum (monkey chow), which upper management felt was justified since the toothy beasts were on private property. (I would later end the practice when I was promoted to tour manager.)

The video site looked as if we had suddenly stepped backwards in time to the early 1800s. This was not a Hollywood set, but the real thing. Native huts, or “chickees”, were spread out across the landscape. Constructed with light brown, thatched palm roofs, they contrasted sharply against a backdrop of green-needled bald cypress trees and a blackened sky threatening to downpour.

Between us and the chickees was a 3-acre pond. Two Seminole boys in ceremonial clothing were standing and poling across the water in a dug-out canoe. Apparently, they weren’t moving fast enough to please the chief.

“C’mon you guys!” he shouted jokingly. “This is your heritage!”

Chief Billie’s sense of humor never dissolved throughout the three days of filming. In spite of the dark and ominous clouds, he planned to build a bonfire near the pond. As he and another man stacked logs in tee-pee fashion on high ground, the Chief exclaimed, “I’ll show you how to make a proper traditional fire!”

I expected to see him rub two pieces of flint together. Instead, he turned his back to us, reached in his front pocket, then turned and doused the wood with lighter fluid. He threw in a single match, then roared with laughter as the fire came to life.

“Chief”, he later reminded us, is a white man’s word. “I prefer you call me Chairman of the Board.”

After dark, 30 Seminole men and women gathered in a wide circle around the bonfire and Anderson. He had his guitar in hand and began to lip sinc his song. Two large speakers belted out his pre-recorded voice:

Progress came and took its toll
and in the name of flood control
They made their plans and they drained the land
now the Glades are going dry
And the last time I walked in the swamp
I sat up on a cypress stump
I listened close and I heard the ghost
of Osceola cry

Again, I felt as if we had found our way through another time warp. The Seminoles danced and chanted as they encircled John, while the director captured it all on film. I took on another job during the filming of the video. I became John Anderson’s stunt man. That’s right. There were some scenes that were just too dangerous for Anderson to do himself. Or at least that’s what I like to think.

Actually, the only danger involved was getting burned if I got too close to the fire. Anderson took his breaks any time the director ran out of film. The cameraman would then break out his light meter to make sure the proper balance of light was hitting Anderson and the Seminoles who were asked to keep dancing.

My job was to hold Anderson’s guitar during these “unfilmed” scenes. These are the scenes that don’t even make it to the cutting room floor. Still, I treated the job like the professional I was. With Anderson out of ear shot, the Seminoles still dancing and the sound still blaring from the speakers, I strummed the guitar and belted out in my twangiest voice: “Blow, blow, Seminole Wind. Blow like you’re never gonna blow again.” I shouldn’t have worried about how well our group would be received. Chief James Billie and John Anderson are close friends. The chief is not only a country music fan, but a writer and performer in his own right. During breaks in the filming, he picked the guitar and sang his own brand of country music, mixing the Mikasuki language with our southern style of English.

…But my dog didn’t know what my Granpa said
He jumped in the water by the gator’s head
Halpockchopi didn’t even pause
my dog disappeared in the gator’s jaws

Given the history of cowboys killing Indians, I thought it ironic that a good ‘old boy in cowboy duds had written a country song honoring the Seminoles. But John Anderson is not your average good ’ole boy. And Seminole Wind is not your average country song. “Seminole Wind” epitomizes what we whites have taken from the Indaian and nature over the centuries. Because a handful of men wanted silver and gold, title to land, and the privileges of aristocracy, the world lost whole communities of people, plants and animals.

The Seminoles I met at Big Cypress were a warmer and more genuine group of people than at any place I had ever lived or visited. People like Chief’s Aid Jeannette Cypress, Seminole Broadcasting Company (WSBC) cameraman Mark Madrid and his son Quannah, Mabel Jim, master story-teller Alan Jumper, Chief James Billie, his lovely wife Leslie and the couple’s young son Micco.

For anyone of any color or nationality who hears John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind”, surely something can be learned. Perhaps by acknowledging our mistakes, we’ll be more careful not to repeat them.