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Seminoles class started to teach students about tribe

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State University student Daniel
Lee learned in fourth grade most of what he knew about the Seminole
Indians, namesakes of his school's athletic teams. It wasn't much.

"You get the puddle deep in-depth analysis," joked Lee, 22, of
Gainesville. "I want to know why we chose the Seminoles and how
our university's policies embody the spirit and strength of the
Seminole culture."

Lee, a music education major, had to wait until his senior year
to find out. He's one of 22 students enrolled in a Seminole history
class that was launched this year partly in response to the
National Collegiate Athletic Association's attempt to force Florida
State to abandon its nickname and mascot, Chief Osceola.

The Seminole warrior hurls a flaming spear into the turf before
every home football game from astride his horse, Renegade.

Offering the course was one of several steps university and
tribal officials had considered over the years to cement the
Florida State-Seminole bond. They never did anything about it,
though, until the NCAA last year deemed the nickname and mascot
"hostile or abusive," barring the university from using them when
hosting championship events.

The NCAA withdrew its order after university President T.K.
Wetherell threatened to sue and the Seminole Tribe of Florida
reiterated its support for the school's use of its name and
symbols.

University administrators, jarred by the controversy, asked
history department chairman Neil Jumonville to make the Seminole
history course happen.

Jumonville and other faculty members met with three tribal
representatives. The Seminoles urged that the class include
discussion of other Southeastern tribes that predated theirs.

The Seminoles began in the 18th century as an amalgam mostly of
Creek Indians, but the tribe also included members of other tribes
and escaped black slaves. Their common bond was fierce resistance
to white domination.

The tribe's name is said to be derived from the Spanish word
"cimarrones" that variously has been translated to mean "free
people," "rebels," "outlaws," "fugitives," "wild ones" and
"unruly."

The Seminoles pride themselves as being unconquered warriors --
the only tribe that never signed a treaty with the U.S. government.

"The way they developed their identity and adapt a multitude of
cultures, it's a fascinating study," said Chris Versen, a recent
Florida State Ph.D. graduate who teaches the class.

Versen developed the curriculum from his own studies of American
Indians, books about the Seminoles, and consultations with other
faculty and Tina Osceola, the tribe's secretary and executive
director of its museum.

Osceola spoke to the class last month.

"The students had a very good working knowledge of the
material, which means that it's working," she said. "Their
questions are informed questions."

Jessica Watson, a sophomore who is majoring in social work, said
she knew nothing of Seminole history before taking the course
although the tribe has a reservation and museum in her hometown of
Hollywood. She decided to enroll after learning of her own Cherokee
heritage.

Jumonville eventually wants to build upon the Seminole class and
existing courses on Latin American history to create a
comprehensive program covering the Native American experience
across the Western Hemisphere.

The Seminoles also wanted the class to trace their history to
the present. The final chapter will include the tribe's support of
Florida State's use of its name and symbols in the confrontation
with the NCAA.

"This whole ordeal with the mascot, we were on common ground,"
Osceola said. She said the NCAA "did not understand or respect a
federally recognized tribe's sovereignty."

Versen said he doesn't want the mascot dispute to become "an
emotional and pointless argument" in his class.

"At the beginning of the class I told them that regardless of
whether or not we want to be, being at FSU identifies us as
Seminoles, and clearly we're not Seminoles in the same way that the
tribal members are," he said.

He plans to focus instead on why Indians have meaning to
Americans as symbols, what effect that has had on Florida State and
the university's need for close contact with the entire community
it serves.

"I want them to think about it in that light," Versen said,
"and leave debates over mascots to others."