Piecing together her roots

Saturday, November 6th 2004, 4:51 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Piece by piece, June Lee stitches colorful traditional patchwork Seminole dresses, jackets and vests. She calls them Indian clothes, and each bright garment she sews is different from her other creations.

Lee, 70, learned to cook and sew at an Indian school near Ponca City. Eventually her sewing skills helped her return to her roots as she began piecing together the tribal patterns.

Lee was born in an area north of Seminole, between Little and Cromwell. When she was 6 years old, her mother died. Lee and her 5-year-old sister were sent to a government school near Eufaula.

``We didn't have anyone to take care of us,'' Lee said. ``My father was working on the pipeline in Texas, and he couldn't. All I remember was crying and crying and crying.''

In addition to losing their mother and being removed from their home, the girls couldn't speak English. That soon changed as the life they once knew became a memory.

Lee finally returned home for a visit with her father and stepmother after she completed the eighth grade. She returned to complete her high school years at an Indian school near Ponca City.

When Lee was in her 30s, she began to research the tribal patchwork pattern. She said she even took a magnifying glass and studied a postcard from Florida that showed the traditional clothing.

She said the Florida Seminoles wore the clothing and also made and sold it to tourists. The Oklahoma Seminoles weren't known to wear their patchwork clothing every day, but saved the pieces for ceremonies and other special occasions.

It is thought the first versions of the Seminole patchwork pattern evolved out of a shortage of large rolls of cotton cloth in the late 1800s, when trade was difficult for the Florida Seminoles. Women took the small strips they had to work with and sewed them by hand into pieces for clothing.

The patterns became more creative and the designs more complex. In the 1920s, when the sewing machine became widely available, the Florida Seminole women sewed for their families and also sold to tourists to supplement their income.

``This was before gambling came in,'' Lee said. ``That changed tourism in Florida. Some tribes don't like to sell their patterns to tourists. I used to sew the patchwork for anyone who wanted it, but now I just sew for tribal members.''

Some designs were symbolic of Seminole clans, such as bear, snake, panther, bird, deer and wind.

Each Seminole Indian born from a Seminole mother is a member of her clan, a traditional family unit.

Lee said the names are taken from nature, and she believes she is from the bird clan. She said her father, who is nearing 90, lives in Florida, and Lee believes he is in the sweet potato clan. But she said there is much she doesn't know because of her mother's early death and because her father never talked much about family history. She said there are many Seminoles who don't know their clan.

``The patchwork is like quilt piecing, and sometimes there are rows and rows of rickrack,'' Lee said. ``It takes a lot of time cutting and piecing, and I stay up late many nights sewing. I don't sew as much as I used to.''

Lee lives in Midwest City much of the time in order to help her daughter who is on dialysis. She said she would like to return to the area where she grew up.

She is an active member of the Hitchitee Indian Methodist Church, a 100-year-old church she attended with her mother.

She would like to pass on the art of creating the Seminole patchwork pattern in keepsake clothing, but she said the younger generation has other interests.

Many young Seminoles will wear the clothing, but few realize the work involved in creating it or the rich history of the patchwork patterns.