At FSU, students learn the history of university’s namesake tribe

Chris Versen

Nearly 60 years ago, Florida State University students voted to adopt the name "Seminoles" for the school’s athletic teams. Now, FSU students are able to learn more about the history and culture of this "unconquered" American Indian tribe through a newly created course, "History of the Seminoles and Southeastern Tribes, Pre-Contact to Present."

Introduced this semester as an elective course for undergraduates, its 45 seats were immediately filled.

Neil Jumonville, chairman of FSU’s department of history, said that plans for the course took shape in April during a meeting held at FSU between representatives of his department and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

"The tribe’s leadership is very sophisticated and intelligent on matters of American history generally and the Seminoles particularly," he said of the meeting. "The tribe and the department seem to be very much on the same page about the course, how to offer their history, and about our continuing connection."

FSU President T.K. Wetherell hailed the new course as a signal of the strong bond that has developed over the years between the university and the tribe. "One of my top priorities is to make sure that our students and supporters have a greater understanding of who the Seminole people are, what they have had to endure throughout their history, and what they have accomplished despite such hardships," he said. "If we know their history, we’ll have a greater appreciation for the Seminole name that we so proudly identify ourselves with."

The new course is taught by Chris Versen, an adjunct lecturer who recently received his doctorate in history from FSU. Versen said his interest in Indian culture and history goes all the way back to childhood.

"My interest in the subject, like my interest in history generally, is as old as my memories," Versen said. "As a child living in Mississippi, we would go to the Choctaw Indian Festival. The impression it left on me was strong enough that images from 30-odd years ago remain vivid in my mind."

Versen added that a course in Seminole history offers numerous opportunities for students to gain new perspectives and better understand their place in the world.

"I think the subject is an important one because of the university’s use of Seminole symbols, and because it offers a great chance to investigate the meaning of such symbols in relation to group identity," he said. "Such an investigation will lead us to consider in our discussions what it means to be Seminole, Indian, American and human."

Jumonville said he hopes the new course will lead to a greater overall emphasis on native history and culture at FSU.

"Both the Seminoles and the department of history want the course to put the tribe in the context of the Southeastern Indians generally," he said. "In fact, the department would like to hire several specialists on native culture and history and then offer courses on the native history of the entire hemisphere from Chile to Alaska, with American Indians and the Seminole Tribe viewed within this larger context. It might be a center on the study of the hemisphere’s natives, with the Seminole Tribe at the heart of it."

In addition to its invaluable role in helping shape the course, Jumonville said he looks forward to having the Seminole Tribe of Florida actively engage with students. "We are trying to arrange for representatives of the Seminoles to talk to the class once or twice this semester, which would probably be the normal number of times in the future, although that is flexible," he said.

Although "History of the Seminoles and Southeastern Tribes, Pre-Contact to Present" currently is limited to 45 students because of space limitations, Jumonville anticipates that additional sections can be added in the future as demand increases.

"We are seeking to have the course redesignated so that it will count for Liberal Studies credit and would fulfill the university’s multicultural requirement for underclassmen," he said. "When that happens, I expect demand to go through the roof.

"I know of no other university or college that offers a history of the Seminoles," Jumonville added. "It’s an honor for FSU, a university so closely associated with the tribe, to help our students learn more about this strong, creative and resilient people."