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Healing Plants: Medicine of the Florida Seminole Indians

Healing Plants: Medicine of the Florida Seminole Indians by Alice Micco Snow and Susan Enns Stans. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida; 2001. 135 pp. ISBN# 0-8130-2062-X. $24.95.

< > In the mid 1700s, several bands of Creek people migrated from southern Georgia and Alabama to northern Florida. These Creeks were typical of southeastern peoples, cultivating corn, beans, and squash. They collected wild plant foods and hunted turkey and deer. Before the Spanish were successful in establishing St. Augustine in 1565, Florida had been home to perhaps 500,000 indigenous people. Among these were the Apalchee and Timucua in northern Florida and the Calusa and Tequesta in the southern portion of the state. By the early 1700s, all of these people were gone, as a result of European diseases and warfare. The Creeks filled this void, bringing with them two languages Mikasuki (Hitchiti) and Muskogee (Creek).

The Creek immigrants eventually became known as the Seminoles, a derivation of the Spanish word cimarron or wild. The Spanish had used the term to refer to Indians who did not live in missions.1 At their zenith, the Seminole numbered more than 5,000. By 1858, three wars with U.S. military forces and forced migration to the West reduced the Seminole population to 150. Fearful of continued efforts to deport them, the Seminoles escaped to scattered camps throughout southern Florida, particularly in the Big Cypress and Everglades. They maintained their Creek culture but lived in much smaller settlements than their northern Florida ancestors. European settlements in the 1900s created the opportunity to trade plumes, alligator skins, otters, huckleberries, grapes, sweet potatoes, bananas, coontie starch (Zamia integrifolia Aiton, Zamiaceae) and gopher tortoises.2

The early part of the century failed to deliver the peace that the Seminoles had long sought. Drainage, which began in the late 1800s, transformed ephemeral wetlands to cattle pastures and agricultural fields. Transportation by dugout canoes was no longer possible during most of the year. Completion of the Tamiami Trail in 1928 gave access to Seminole camps, formerly protected by the vastness of the Big Cypress. Finally, the establishment of Everglades National Park forced the peripatetic Seminoles to relocate once again. The 150 or fewer recalcitrant and undefeated survivors of three wars and forced relocations are the ancestors of today’s extant Seminoles.

Based on his work in the 1950s, Sturtevant described the Seminoles as “...the most isolated and conservative of the Indian groups remaining in the United States.”3 His assessment is still largely applicable today. The survivors of the Third Seminole War (1855-1858) now number more than 2,000. They are represented by three groups: the Seminoles, the Miccosukees, and the Trail Indians.2 The Seminole Tribe of Florida formed in 1957. With its headquarters in Hollywood, the Tribe has three major reservations: Big Cypress, established in the 1890s; Brighton, established in the late 1930s; and Dania-Hollywood, established in 1907. The Tribe recently created smaller reservations in Tampa, Immakolee, and Ft. Pierce. The Seminoles speak both Creek (Brighton and Tampa) and Mikasuki (Big Cypress, Immokalee, and Hollywood).

The Miccosukee Tribe formed in 1962, choosing their name as an alternative spelling of their language—Mikasuki. They are smaller in number, but more traditional than the other Seminoles. The two tribes represent political entities, not ethnic lineages. Both are governed by an elected tribal council and an elected chairman. Nonetheless, the traditional authority of elders and women is strong. Matrilineal kinship patterns are still recognized. Several hundred Seminoles live along the Tamiami Trail and are affiliated with neither tribe. These include some of the most traditional of all of Florida’s surviving indigenous peoples.

Healing Plants: Medicine of the Florida Seminole Indians offers a glimpse at the pharmacopeia of these resilient and independent people. Other than Sturtevant’s unpublished dissertation4 and two brief overviews,5,6 little is known about their plant use. Most Seminole medicinal lore is considered privileged information. One of the authors, Alice Micco Snow, is a Seminole healer who grew up speaking Creek on the Brighton Reservation, and later learned Mikasuki. Susan Emma Stans, the coauthor, is an anthropologist who worked with Alice. In the introduction, they acknowledge that some Seminoles will criticize the publication of this book due to the preference for maintaining the privileged status of the contents. Alice believes that it is crucial to record the information for her children and grandchildren.

The book’s introductory chapters describe traditional Seminole healing practices and provide a biography of Alice. The authors note the interrelationships of five elements in indigenous medicine: the patient, the doctors and collectors, the herbs, the diagnosis, and the treatment. Seminole herbalists collect their medicinal plants in a specific order. In some cases, material must be harvested only from the plant’s east side.

Alice employs about 74 medicinal herbs, significantly less than the 225 that were employed by Josie Billie in the 1950s.4 Among the most frequently used are red bay (Persea borbonia) and button snakeroot (Eryngium yuccifolium). At least one non-Florida plant, ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), is a common ingredient in Seminole medicine (presumably obtained by trading or purchasing on the market). Alice notes that several medicinal plants are now difficult to locate.

Seminole traditional medicine is viewed as a complement to Western medicine. Alice employs her healing traditions to treat chronic symptoms, psychological aspects of disease, and adverse reactions to Western medicine. Stans states that only two of Alicetreatments correspond to Western diagnoses—stroke and hysterectomy. Yet, several other conditions she recognizes (e.g., earache, pain, and tachycardia) would be familiar to any physician. Others apply to culturally-bound syndromes, such as monkey and death sickness.

The strength of this book is its description of Seminole tradition and medicinal concepts. Taxonomic and ethnobotanical scholarship, however, is inadequate. At least 20 plants are incorrectly identified. For example, Hypericum aspalathoides should be H. fasciculatum, Cissus munsoniana should be Vitis rotundifolia, and Pinus caribaea should be Pinus elliottii. Hypericum aspalathoides and Cissus munsoniana are synonyms. Pinus caribaea does not grow in the United States. Willow is listed as Salix amphibia in one case and Salix caroliniana in others. The latter name is the correct one. The epithet for Eryngiumyuccifolium is consistently misspelled as yucciafolium. Nonetheless, a patient taxonomist can determine the correct name for the cited binomials. Thirteen of 74 healing plants are identified only by Seminole names.

Perhaps a greater problem is that readers have no context for evaluating Seminole plants. The authors cite a single 1947 reference on Chenopodium ambrosioides, which the Creek-speaking Seminoles call >welanv (pronounced we-la-nuh). Yet there are scores of references on this important medicinal plant and an equally rich literature on many other Seminole plants. Is the Seminole pharmacopeia similar to that of other southeastern cultures? Do they use the same plants for the same purposes? Those types of questions are not addressed. Some statements are erroneous, such as the author’s reference to the extirpation of wild ginseng (P. quinquefolius) from northern Florida. There are no valid records of this plant’s natural occurrence in the state of Florida.

Most of the text employs Creek or Mikasuki names, forcing most readers to refer to the appendices. English names or binomials would have been more useful, even for most Seminoles. A complete ethnobotanical treatment should include family names and plant descriptions, author names of binomials, and references to vouchered specimens. All of these are lacking. The authors’ choice of phonetic spelling also presents difficulties for non-Creek speakers.

Healing Plants may dissatisfy those looking for a detailed ethnobotanical description of Seminole medicinal plants. However, readers interested in an introduction to the Seminole people and their concepts of disease and healing will value this book. Alice Snow should be commended for breaking the Seminole tradition of silence and, for the first time, opening a window into the rich knowledge of Florida’s indigenous people.

—Bradley C. Bennett,PhD, Director

Center for Ethnobiology and Natural Products

Florida International University, Miami, Florida



1.Milanich JT. Florida Indians and the invasion from Europe. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida; 1995.

2. Covington JW. The Seminoles of Florida. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida; 1993.

3.Sturtevant WC. A Seminole medicine maker. In: In the company of man: Twenty portraits of anthropological informants. New York: Harper and Row Publishers; 1960:505-532.

4.Sturtevant WC. The Mikasuki Seminole: Medical beliefs and practices[dissertation]. New Haven, CT: Yale University; 1955.

5. Bennett BC. An introduction to the Seminole people and their plants, Part I: History and Ethnology. Palmetto. 1997;17(2):20-21,24.

6.Bennett BC. An introduction to the Seminole people and their plants, Part II: Seminole plant use. Palmetto. 1997;17(2):16-17,22.