Badass Ladies of History: Betty Mae Tiger Jumper

In an instant, Betty Mae Tiger Jumper could have never existed. She could have never gone on to become one of the few women in her community to go to school. She could have never been one of the most respected leaders, nor the first woman Seminole chair. Her life could have been cut short, leading to the unknown death of someone who would become one of the most active leaders in the Seminole Nation.

1922, Indiantown, Florida. Betty Mae Tiger Jumper was born into one of the few remaining Seminole communities in the South. She was born into a hostile southern racial climate, to an indigenous Seminole mother and a French trapper father, traveling between race and class worlds, often being told she did not belong to any of them. While her mother continued living within her community, it is unclear what happened to her father, though one can guess that he left for a new encampment, leaving behind the two children he had fathered. This would prove to be an obstacle. Since Jumper and her brother were mixed race, specifically of a Seminole woman and a white man, the specific Seminole Nation law at the time demanded that any children produced in such unions, forced or consenting, were to be put to death.  The family was visited by a group of men, who saw it in their duty to forever get rid of Jumper and her brother.  It just so happened that her great uncle, Jimmie Gopher, a Seminole Nation leader who had converted to Christianity and worked with Oklahoma missionaries, stopped by the house that very afternoon to see his niece and nephew, running directly into the group of men.  He was told that it was his responsibility to kill both children, or break tribal law. Jimmie refused and convinced the family to move away from the Nation, to a place called Dania, Florida.

A Seminole Legend. The Life of Betty Mae Tiger Jumper. Image courtesy of Jumper& West

Even after this incident, which would have taken away one of the greatest women in Seminole history, the Jumpers’ lives, especially Betty Mae’s, proved difficult. The Seminole Nation they had belonged too had been their support system and now they were left without many family and friends.  Because of distrust in the white community from violence and crimes committed against the Seminoles, education outside of the Nation was looked down upon. Bettie Mae was unable to learn to read or write in English, making it hard for them in a predominantly Anglo-English town. Surrounding schools did not prove to be an easier venture. She was unable to gain access to the segregated school system at the time; refused from a white school for being Native American and refused from a black school for being “white.” This motivated her even more to go after the education she knew she had to have. Finally, she convinced her mother to let her go to a Native American boarding school in Cherokee, North Carolina, where she excelled as one of the best students. She became the first historically known Seminole to read and write in English, as well as graduating from high school.

Betty Mae Tiger Jumper. Image courtesy Florida memory

“Firsts” would not become an unusual term for describing Betty Mae.  She later became the historical first Seminole to be accepted to the nursing program at the Kiowa Indian Hospital in Oklahoma. With her training, she returned to her community and worked to improve healthcare, as well as access to it. She became the first Seminole public nurse ( on paper) , as well as the first to initiate the beginnings of the Indian Health Care Program, which would later foster different healthcare for members of her Nation. Her efforts became more and more recognized, as she became the first woman to serve on the Seminole council, helping to spearhead the movement towards a more organized Nation government, one that would eventually obtain federal recognition in 1957 due to Betty Mae’s leadership. Because of this victory and her proven ability at great leadership, she was elected to the Board of Directors. Her firsts would always lead to more firsts, and she would keep paving the way for the empowerment and uplifting of her community, until finally, she received one of the largest honors in her community ““ the first, and only to date, Seminole woman to be elected chair of the Nation Council.

She would chair the council for four years, bringing the community’s financial surplus from forty dollars to half a million, an amount that stunned the even more financially well-off tribes in the area. She began the Nation’s first newspaper, which was originally named Smoke Signals (later changed to Alligator Times to reflect Jumper’s personal love of alligator wrestling) and eventually became the current Seminole Times. She was one of two women appointed by President Nixon to serve on the National Congress on Indian Opportunity and later used this position to found the United South and Eastern Tribes, a powerful lobbying group that represented southern Nation’s such as the Choctaw, Miccosukees, Cherokee and the Seminoles. The lobbying group has since expanded and included twenty-four more Nation’s.

Betty Mae printing the first Seminole newspaper. Image courtesy of Seminole news

As she gained the status of a respected elder in her community, she became a Nation storyteller, orally recounting Seminole history to the youngest in her community. She used this opportunity to author several books, such as And With The Wagon Came God’s World and  Legends of the Seminoles. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Florida State University in recognition for her great literary contributions, the first Native American to receive an honorary doctorate.

Betty Mae died in January earlier this year, as one of the last matriarch’s of the Snake Klan, at the age of 88. Her death was mourned by the community as a great loss and her life was recounted by her many historical “firsts” , thought to say she was the first badass matriarch would be a lie. She left behind a legacy filled with honor, respect and accomplishment, deeming her a badass lady of history.

 

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