A Matriarch of the Seminole Tribe of Florida: Ruby Tiger Osceola

You may or may not have noticed the statue that greets you when you get off of the elevator near the South Garage at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa. The woman standing in front of you is Ruby Tiger Osceola, a woman with a vast amount of courage, strength, bravery and respect. She is referred to as a matriarch of the Seminoles who live right here in Tampa Bay.

This article was published by Lindsay Peterson for the Tampa Tribune in March, 1996, in which it shares the brave story of Ruby Tiger Osceola, a woman whose legacy will live on forever.

Living History By LINDSAY PETERSON/For The Tampa Tribune Originally published March 12, 1996

Ruby Tiger Osceola, a 100-year-old Seminole Indian, is both a link to the past and a leader for the future.

TAMPA – When Ruby Tiger Osceola was born 100 years ago, there were fewer than 360 Seminole Indians in Florida. Thousands had died in the Seminole Wars or been shipped west and herded onto reservations.

Her grandparents and great-grandparents were among a small band driven deep into the swamps of South Florida, refusing to give in to the U.S. Army’s “subjugation and removal” effort, as Secretary of War Jefferson Davis called it in 1855.

The birth of Ruby Osceola in the Everglades on Dec. 1, 1895, represented the tribe’s will to survive. Today’s descendants of those Florida Seminole survivors number about 2,000, of whom Osceola is the oldest.

She’s a tiny woman, shrunken by age and shy with outsiders. But among Seminoles, to whom she speaks only in her native language, she is a giant.

Mother of seven, grandmother of 28 and great-grandmother of 30, she’s the matriarch of the roughly 80 Seminoles who live on or near the 9-acre reservation off Orient Road in Tampa.

Beginning Thursday, her family will celebrate her century of life with a four-day event that will include storytellers and Indian dancers. Traditional beads, multicolored dresses and other Seminole crafts will be on display to the public in recognition of the cultural heritage Osceola helped keep alive.

Her legacy runs even deeper.

“She kept the family together,” says her daughter Maggie Osceola. “She’s always watching out for the children and the grandchildren. She always wants everyone to be together.”

Throughout their history, the people known as the Seminoles have never been in one place for very long.

They began as members of various Creek tribes who migrated into North Florida in the early 1700s. They hunted, farmed and traded with one another. They lived in peace under the English and the Spanish until 1812.

That year, U.S. troops at war with England moved into Florida to punish the Seminoles, supposedly for aiding runaway slaves and bringing food to the besieged city of St. Augustine, which harbored British people.

In 1818, Andrew Jackson, then a federal general, led an attack on Seminole and Spanish settlements. When the Spanish protested, the United States offered to buy Florida for $5 million. Spain agreed.

Off and on until the late 1800s, Indians and U.S. troops battled for the right to land occupied by the Indians but coveted by white settlers.

In 1830, Jackson, by now president, signed the Indian Removal Act ordering that all Indians in the Southeastern states be moved to Western reservations.

Many chiefs were persuaded to go. But not the famed Osceola, to whom Ruby Osceola claims a distant kinship.

Osceola became notorious in 1835, when he killed chief Charley Emanthla after the chief agreed to go west and sold his clan’s cattle to white men. Osceola is reported to have taken Emanthla’s money and scattered it across the prairie as a sign of contempt.

The Seminole warrior led hit-and-run raids on U.S. soldiers and settlements throughout Central Florida. Troops burned Indian villages in response.

Osceola was captured when he attended a meeting supposedly to talk about a truce. He died in prison at Fort Moultrie in Charleston, S.C., of a throat infection in 1838.

Still the war, known as the Second Seminole War, went on. Many Indians surrendered and were sent west. Some warriors were tricked, like Osceola, and captured. Others withdrew deep into the Everglades. By 1842, they had retreated so far south that U.S. officials declared the war to be over.

Still the government was determined to rid the state of the Seminoles. U.S. officials offered the last surviving major chief, Billy Bowlegs, $215,000 to take his people to Oklahoma. He refused.

Fighting began again in 1855, when a group of land surveyors found Bowlegs’ Everglades camp and destroyed his crops. Within three years, Bowlegs was worn out. The government made another offer and he accepted. He and his 120 followers were the last in a line of 12,000 Indians lured, cajoled and forced to leave Florida for reservations in the west.

Still, about 200 remained in their wilderness home. Skirmishes continued for another 30 years. Ruby Osceola was born into this small band of survivors. Every now and then, her children say, she’ll recall as a child seeing white men in the swamp and hiding.

Her mother died when she was young, and she was raised mostly by her father. The family traveled the swamp by foot and dugout canoe, hunting deer, turtles and fish.

Always independent, she raised seven children on the money she earned working for local farmers. In 1960, her husband was stabbed to death, and she, her children and their families gathered up their belongings and left the Everglades.

She never remarried, says Keith Simmons, who is married to one of Osceola’s granddaughters.

The family moved to Naples, then Bradenton to work in a plant nursery. In the early 1980s, the Seminole tribe bought the 9 acres in Tampa as a place to shelter bones uncovered during downtown construction. Chief James Billie asked Osceola and her family to make a home on the new Seminole land.

The original group of 30 has nearly tripled, filling the three apartment buildings behind the reservation’s high-stakes bingo hall.

Time is catching up with Osceola and she’s beginning to slow down. Increasingly her mind wanders back to the swamps of her childhood. But she still wants to do all the work, her children say.

“She always wants to be making something or be doing something,” says daughter Maggie. “She tries to do the laundry. And she gets real upset when people try to help her.”

Ruby Osceola is not all business. She has a quick bright smile and an easy laugh.

“My husband is always trying to make her laugh,” says Tracy Garcia, one of Ruby’s daughters-in-law. “He calls her big momma and big boss. That makes her giggle.”

But Ruby Osceola holds on to her role as the group’s leader. She always keeps her eye on the children around her. She worries they’ll get involved in drugs. And she worries about family members who have left the crowded Tampa property to live in homes nearby.

She doesn’t like to see people moving away, says Maggie. She worries that she won’t be able to protect them.

“She wants to protect everybody.”