MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally, today, we hear again from Jacki Lyden, host of The Seams podcast, which tells fastening stories through the clothing people wear. Lately, she's been telling us about the Seminole Indian tribe of Florida, and a key part of their identity is their distinctive patchwork clothing. Now, it isn't what you normally think of as patchwork though - the kind you find on quilts. It's more like cotton origami - squares of cloth rolled and folded into symbols like flags and crosses and birds. They make up strips, which are then sewn together to make garments. Some tribal members wear it every day. But just about everybody who identifies as Seminole wears it on special occasions, like the Miss Florida Seminole Princess Pageant, which is where Jacki Lyden takes us now.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This evening, Allegra is wearing a modern traditional long dress with a short cape. Skyla is wearing a beautiful traditional dress in white, pink, black and gray. Tonight, Alexis is wearing a purple all-cotton traditional dress with medicine-color bias tape.
JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: Twelve young woman in their teens and early 20s are walking on a stage surrounded by twinkling lights that look like a starry night sky. They're contestants in the 58th annual Miss Florida Seminole Princess Pageant. Lewis Gopher is one of the tribe's emcees. He explained what patchwork is.
LEWIS GOPHER: The designs haven't always been around. You know, the more older-style and the traditional is just the basic all-cotton
LYDEN: Twenty-year-old contestant Alexis Jumper made a couple of dresses for the pageant. We caught up with her at the dress rehearsal.
ALEXIS JUMPER: So I go about picking the colors, and I look at what would look best with each other. Then from there, I would put the strips and everything in the colors I want, and then I can decide if I want it to be more traditional or if I want to go for a more flashy approach to it.
LYDEN: Alexis comes from Hollywood, the largest of the Seminole reservations in South Florida. For her, the pageant is more than a rite of passage. It's a career step up the tribal hierarchy.
JUMPER: I'm going to get a job here in the tribe because I want to one day work up to secretary. And then hopefully one day, I want to strive to be chairman.
LYDEN: Her great-grandmother Betty Mae Jumper was the first female elected chairman of any federally-recognized American Indian tribe. Alexis makes her own pageant clothes because she enjoys the tradition of sewing.
JUMPER: I learned all my sewing at the Culture Center here in Hollywood. Sewing is definitely something that I really love doing. It's one of my major hobbies that I do every day.
LYDEN: The sewing machine changed the way the tribe looked. When the Singer sewing machine came into existence in the 19th century, the Seminoles embraced it. Today, the sewing room at the Cultural Center in Hollywood, Fla., is always busy, especially around the Princess Pageant and other festival times. One of the seamstresses in the sewing room on this weekday morning is Shannon Tiger.
SHANNON TIGER: I'm making fire. It comes from - you start, like, with - it's called rain. You - it's like two - it's just, like, two squares but you cut it at an angle. And then you put them together and then you make the fire.
LYDEN: For another seamstress, patchwork is also a business. Ashley Cypress is a member of the closely-related Miccosukee Tribe. She sews for natives and non-native people alike. She uses social media expertly, including Facebook. She's dressed a lot of pageant contestants.
ASHLEY CYPRESS: They'll come to me, and then they'll show me a picture. And they're like do you think you can make something like this? I was like, I'll try it. If I see something in the store or on Pinterest - Pinterest is, like, my best friend (laughter).
LYDEN: One historian says that what makes Seminole patchwork so appealing is the way the patterns move in the wind or when someone is walking. Arrayed on a stage, the patterns on the young women glow, as if they were a part of a neon pop-art kaleidoscope. They're often made now from modern fabrics like satin and velvet, and in the case of Alexis Jumper's skirt, sequins and lace.
JUMPER: (Speaking Creek). Hello and good evening, everyone. My name is Alexis Jumper. I am 20 years old from Hollywood Reservation.
LYDEN: Alexis came in second runner-up. Tribal members call the contestants the life-givers of the next generation. The winner is the tribe's ambassador to the world. Pageant coach and former Miss Florida Seminole Princess, Christine McCall.
CHRISTINE MCCALL: I have to remind the girls that yes, you know who we are and, you know, you might meet another person in Florida who knows who we are. But when you leave this state, more than likely they're going to not know who we are, and we have to educate them. They might see a beautiful skirt, but they're - they don't understand why we wear it.
LYDEN: They wear it because it identifies this small tribe as Seminole, and it sparks the curiosity of anyone who sees it. Indeed, if your's has been sparked, check out the Seminole Tribal Fair and Pow-Wow at the Hollywood Hard Rock Casino the first weekend in February. For NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden.
MARTIN: And Jacki Lyden is here with us now. Jacki, this is all fascinating. I want to hear more about that patchwork. But the first thing I wanted to ask you is how did this Princess Pageant get started? I hear there's a really interesting story about that.
LYDEN: Well, Michel, there is. First of all, recognize this is a small tribe - 4,000 people - not as well known as big tribes of 100,000-plus or more. So when the Seminole tribe of Florida was federally recognized in the late 1950s, there was a young secretary named Laura Mae Osceola who accompanied the tribal council, who were all male, to Washington, D.C. And she just got tired of condescendingly being referred to by bureaucrats there as - oh, you must be the princess. So she suggested rather boldly to the tribal elders that they hold a contest for the reservations and communities and select a princess who would be the tribe's ambassador forevermore. And one of the very first princesses is still around today to guide young contestants.
MARTIN: So tell me a little bit more about the patchwork. Is this - is this one of those traditional arts that has been revived in a way in part because of events like the pageant, where it's showcased?
LYDEN: Absolutely. I mean, I don't know if it was ever really on the way out, but it's certainly having a renaissance. It used to be an income stream when the Seminoles depended heavily on the tourist industry. Today, kids in all the Seminole elementary schools are taught to make it - and this is interesting, Michel - this includes young boys. Seminole and Miccosukee seamstresses just teach it to young women and men at home, in their own homes. And anyone who attends a Seminole event - the tribe has a calendar on their website - can buy it, any one of us. Just bring a lot of cash, Michel, because it is beautiful and you'll want it and an outfit can cost as much as a thousand dollars..
MARTIN: (Laughter) OK, so bring a lot of cash. That's Jacki Lyden, founder of The Seams, the podcast. Jacki, thank you.
LYDEN: It was a real pleasure. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: I do want to mention that the story was reported with help from the Florida Council for the Humanities. And if you want to see examples of the patchwork, just look for The Seams at npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.