Object: Seminole Dolls

E/1953/6/079, E/1953/6/078, E/1953/6/080
United States, North America
Pre-1950 (approximately 1930’s)
Materials: Palmetto Fiber, cotton patchwork, beads

People all over the world produce dolls for a number of different reasons. They are created for religious significance, as toys, collector pieces, or to celebrate part of their culture. The Seminole tribe is no exception to this and creates dolls for the children within their society. These dolls were originally designed to fall apart as the child grew up. However, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Seminole began to mass-produce and market their palmetto fiber dolls to tourists.

Like all Americans, the Seminole were adversely affected by the Great Depression and were in desperate need of a new economic outlet. At this time, Seminole villages were often administered by non-tribal members and were opened as a sort of “human zoo” where tourists could come and watch the Seminole doing daily work in their native environment.[i] These villages would leave the visitor with a sense of “knowing” what it meant to be Seminole. However, they were provided a show of habitat, mythology, and adaptation that was created to reinforce the “unconquered” or “wild” image of the Florida Seminole.[ii] This idea of remaining unconquered was an important aspect of Seminole culture, as they stood against the government’s attempts to remove them from their land.

The Seminole believe the dolls they make for sale are important “because they represent Seminole women at a turning point in their tribal history.”[iii] This was a time in which vast change was occurring for many Native American tribes, and for the Seminole they were trying to reclaim their sense of self in the face of attempts to either assimilate or remove them. Each Seminole woman was “responsible for her own enterprises and kept the profits from her handiwork or distributed them as she wanted… These women set their own prices and kept their profits.“[iv] This allowed the women to have a sense of freedom and control over their crafts. So, while they were being placed on display for tourists and creating items for sale, they still had a say over the prices and income that they could make off of these items.

The Seminole have sold these dolls to tourists since the early 1900s, and they are still available today. The bodies were initially made of wood until around the 1930s when the practice of using palmetto fibers, a natural material found in South Florida, took over. The body of the female dolls is created using a wood or cardboard circular base in order for the doll to be able to stand up. The fibers are wrapped around the base and formed into a cylinder shape with the head being created with a cinched neck. The features of the face are either sewn in or painted on. The dolls can range in size with some being over a foot tall and others being only a few inches in height. Most of the dolls that are created are female, however the Seminole began making male dolls in the 1940s due to popular demand. They are less common as the arms and legs are more difficult to make.[v]

The female dolls were decorated in small dresses with a cape around the shoulders and with beads for earrings and necklaces. Young Seminole women were fond of wearing several beaded necklaces as both a symbol of beauty and status. However, as the women aged, they would give way to comfort and wear fewer pieces of jewelry, gifting them to others over the years. While the clothing used for the dolls were originally small scraps from clothing that the actual Seminole people wore, “shortly before 1920, a new decorative technique was developed by Seminole women – the now famous patchwork.”[vi] This patchwork was quickly adopted as a means to further embellish the already colorful clothing. As more Seminole woman came to own sewing machines, they were able to create more intricate and detailed patterns in order to decorate the dolls. The variety in design is present in every Seminole doll; no two have quite the same design or pattern, which affords each their sense of uniqueness.

The typical hairstyle used for the dolls consists of a hair board or bonnet style. This unique hairstyle emerged in the 1930s and is created by a “fitted crown of cloth-covered cardboard or other flat material giving their hair a definitely pronounced shape.”[vii] This led to many of the dolls seeming to be wearing black bonnets, when in actuality it is a distinctive hairstyle to the Seminole women of the time.

A lot can be learned about the changing nature of dress, tourism, and women’s roles in Seminole society by studying museum objects such as these dolls from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

[Kathryn Smith]

To learn more about Seminole patchwork, take a look at this great video from the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Museum:


[i] Nathaniel Sandler and Kevin Arrow. “The Curious Vault 005: Seminole Dolls.” The Curious Vault: Inside the Collection of the Miami Science Museum. March 21, 2013. http://www.miamisci.org/blog/the-curious-vault-005-seminole-dolls/

[ii] Layla Renee Archer. “Seminole Dolls, Seminole Life: An

Exploration of Tourism and Culture.” Florida State University Libraries. 2005. Pg. 37 http://diginole.lib.fsu.edu/islandora/object/fsu:168351/datastream/PDF/view

[iii] Archer. “Seminole Dolls”. 2005. pg. 41

[iv] Archer. “Seminole Dolls”. 2005.Pg 27.

[v] Sandler and Arrow. “The Curious Vault”. March 21, 2013.

[vi] David M. Blackard and Patsy West. “Seminole Clothing”. Culture: Who We Are. Accessed April 12, 2016. http://www.semtribe.com/Culture/SeminoleClothing.aspx.

[vii] Patsy West. “Hairstyle”. Culture: Who We Are. Accessed April 14, 2016. http://www.semtribe.com/Culture/Hairstyle.aspx

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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