Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today
From the Florida swamplands to the stages of Woodstock and the Hard Rock cafes, the Seminole and Miccosukee nations continue to make their marks on the music world.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Miccosukee brothers Stephen and Lee Tiger performed across the country as Tiger Tiger and rubbed shoulders with Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, the Grateful Dead and Johnny Winter.
Today, bands of brothers — The Osceola Brothers and siblings Spencer Battiest and Doc Native — are stepping into the spotlight.
What has made the Seminole and Miccosukee musicians successful? Family ties are one component, as families tend to stay close-knit on tribal lands, helping each generation navigate the fast-paced changes of the past 60 years.
Geography also has a lot to do with it. The tribes in Florida regularly host mainstream acts on tour and hold festivals at the beaches, giving budding musicians an up-close look at musicians and the music industry.
And the enormous success of the Seminole Tribe’s Hard Rock casino and resort empire have provided an immeasurable boost, giving a global stage to emerging bands and bringing the music world to their door.
“The Seminole and Miccosukee groups don’t start out to be Indigenous rock stars,” Stevie Salas, Apache, told Indian Country Today by phone from his home in Austin, Texas. “Like me, they set out to be rock stars that happen to be Indigenous.”
Salas is a guitar player for Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart, and a writer, composer and producer of the Sundance Award-winning documentary “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World.”
“The South Florida tribes have an advantage in their geography, but it’s still not easy for anyone to get started in the music business,” he said. “It’s finding a way to stand out and then working hard to be heard.”
Seminole music history
Music has played an important role in the Seminole tribes for centuries, starting with the traditional music featuring drums, rattles and flutes, and moving into popular music in the 20th century.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida officially formed in 1957, when it ratified a constitution and gained federal recognition. The tribe oversees six reservations, including one in Hollywood, Florida, where the tribe is headquartered.
The Miccosukee established themselves as an independent tribe in 1962, splitting from the Seminole Tribe and gaining federal recognition as the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida. The Miccosukee Reservation sits in southern Florida.
The music industry has been growing in importance for the Seminoles. In 2004, the Seminole Tribe opened Hard Rock casinos and hotels in Tampa and Hollywood, Florida, offering venues for mainstream musicians to perform in the region.
Then in 2007, the tribe bought the entire global Hard Rock chain for $965 million, except for the Hard Rock Casino in London and the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. It was the largest purchases ever by a tribe and provided a boost to Indigenous musicians who long had labored on the circuit of Native festivals.
Today, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casinos enterprise employs thousands of workers in nearly 70 countries, including the Hard Rock Hotel Madrid, which formally opened on July 1, 2021.
With access to the Hard Rock venues, Indigenous musicians began to perform with mainstream acts, allowing them to make connections they might not otherwise have made.
And the venues have provided a showcase for homegrown talent. In 2015, the Seminole Tribe launched the Native Rock Celebration – billed as a “summer night of hot Seminole rock” — at the Hard Rock Resort and Casino in Hollywood. Lee Tiger and Tiger Tiger, Ted Nelson and the Tee Pee Creepers and The Osceola Brothers performed at the inaugural show.
The first group to break through was Tiger Tiger, made up of brothers Stephen and Lee Tiger, whose father, Buffalo Tiger, was the first chief of the Miccosukee after it split from the Seminole Tribe.
The boys watched their father as he played the U.S. government against Cuba’s Fidel Castro to gain tribal recognition for the Miccosukee. Buffalo Tiger traveled to Cuba in 1959 to convince Castro to grant international recognition to the Miccosukee as a sovereign nation within the United States, leading to the Department of the Interior’s decision three years later to approve federal recognition.
Starting in the late 1960s, the Tiger brothers “were musicians who just happened to be Native Americans," Lee Tiger told New Times Broward-Palm Beach in 2015.
People were fascinated by their heritage and lifestyle, he said, which “gave us an edge. It put us in a unique 'world music' category.”
Tiger Tiger evolved on the local circuit, at one point playing the Miami Pop Festival, where members met Jimi Hendrix. In 1968, the brothers relocated to Woodstock, New York, to record, then to Los Angeles, where they played top clubs.
They signed a contract with ESP Records but their career was cut short by a management deal gone wrong and the decision to return home to help their father and the growing Miccosukee tribe.
Other Indigenous musicians on the scene — Redbone, XIT, guitarist Jesse Ed Davis and Rita Coolidge, among others — continued on to gain fame.
"The business was messy in those days," Lee Tiger said. "It clearly wasn't meant to happen."
Still, Tiger Tiger would go on to sign with Sound of America Records, and release a series of albums into the 1990s.
In 2000, the band’s album, “Southern Exposure,” received a Grammy nomination. The band won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007 from the Native American Music Awards (NAMA).
Back in South Florida, the brothers helped establish Miccosukee Village in the Everglades as an entertainment and eco-tourist destination. Stephen died from a fall in 2006, and Lee has focused on marketing and tourism for the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes of Florida and the state as a whole. He said he is driven to see the tribes prosper.
And their music will soon get a new boost.
“Carrying on the legacy of the Tiger Tiger band, I have decided to remaster a few of my solo projects to continue raising awareness for equality and Indigenous value in America,” Lee Tiger said in a statement.
In April, he remastered his single “One Earth, One People.” Heavily influenced by 1970s and 1980s classic rock, he infuses it with Indigenous sounds and values.
“The song addresses peace and unity in the world despite all of the violence and injustices that are prevalent today,” he said. “The chain of global love has been overlooked and uncared for. We must keep in mind our future generations since they depend on us to do the right thing.”
Spencer Battiest and Doc Native
Seminole brothers Spencer Battiest, 30, and Zach “Doc Native” Battiest, 32, who grew up in a family of seven on tribal lands, emerged into the music world in the 2000s.
They came to music early on. In 2013, Spencer — with his silky voice — was the first Native artist to sign with Hard Rock Records. His passion came from learning gospel hymns in both Choctaw and Miccosukee, which led him to rhythm-and-blues and rock.
Spencer began performing the national anthem on television and at festivals. Doc was drawn to rap and hip-hop. The two teamed up to produce unlikely collaborations on “The Storm” in 2011 and more recently “Dream.”
Both songs and accompanying videos celebrate their Seminole family, history and perseverance. Rather than produce a whole album, the brothers are using the power and reach of the internet and social media. They perform individually and together, using their individual names rather than a band name.
Their slickly produced videos have won awards from the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco, imagineNative in Toronto, the Smithsonian’s Santa Fe Native Cinema Showcase, and Native American Music Awards.
The “Dream” video shows the contrast in their voices to great effect, as Doc’s rap vocals about the struggles of daily life give way to Spencer’s croon on the power of dreaming.
“The idea was to have a fight song,” Native said in a phone interview with Indian Country Today. “It’s an anthem and a Native call to action.”
Although the tribe does not have a recording studio, Battiest said he and his brother have their own in-home recording studio, where they have worked for the past 10 years on the reservation. He said the tribe helps performers with promotion, but does not provide financial backing.
“The tribe helps promote where and when they can,” he said. “Most of the promotion we receive is from our people and others who like our music and share it. If our tribal performers are doing well, that's solely based on their own hard work and dedication to their craft just like everyone else.
“I know as a community we all do what we can to continue to support and encourage each other to go for their dreams and personal goals,” he said. “But it's all up to the artist at the end of the day.”
The Osceola Brothers
Another group, The Osceola Brothers, are a rock-and-roll Seminole band.
Made up of Cameron, 24, Tyson, 23, and Sheldon, 20, the trio is, like the Tiger Tiger brothers, tribal royalty. Their grandfather and uncle worked in the 1950s to help the Seminole tribe gain federal recognition.
Their interest in music started early, with the support of their parents, who got them instruments after they became fans of classic rock bands like Guns ‘n’ Roses and Whitesnake.
By their teens, they were all playing music, teaching themselves by “listening to records, MTV videos and the radio,” Cameron told Indian Country Today. “From hard rock we delved back into the blues rock of Jimi Hendrix and Tom Petty, and that became the basis for our sound.”
After years of playing covers, they began writing songs. Cameron handles lead vocals and guitar, with Tyson on bass and Sheldon on drums.
“I used to get made fun of for my long hair, which confused me,” Cameron said. “Rockers have long hair and so do Indians. But I’ve become more comfortable with who I am, walking in these different worlds. Music really saved my life. I like that I can reach kids and show them a new way to live or at least a break from what bad things they may be going through.”
With the pandemic lockdowns receding and concerts starting to be booked again, the musicians are itching to make their voices heard.
Lee Tiger’s remastered songs are being released online. Spencer Battiest has a long-delayed live theater production of “Distant Thunder” coming up next year in Oklahoma.
And The Osceola Brothers are doing more home recording and looking to book shows in South Florida and Nashville, where they performed earlier in 2021.
Salas said despite the support of the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes, the performers must make their own way in the music world.
“Once you get started and find your inspiration, you have to find a way to be uniquely derivative of all that has come before,” he said.
“Then the music has to stand on its own,” he said. “Look at a band like Redbone. Yes, their look is unique with the buckskin and Native jewelry, but the hit song, ‘Come and Get Your Love,’ is great in any language.”
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