Interview With Mary B. Billie, Seminole Doll Maker

From: Audio recordings of Florida Folk Festival performances and other folk events, 1935-2001, Series S 1576

In the interviews in this unit, Seminole doll maker Mary B. Billie and her daughter, Claudia C. John, discuss the history and practices of Seminole doll making. The interviews were conducted at the Big Cypress Indian Reservation by folklorists Doris Dyen and Peggy Bulger in June 1980. Mary Billie speaks in Mikasuki. Claudia C. John translates. In various texts, Mary's last name is spelled either "Billie" or "Billy." Since the Mikasuki language was not originally written, this is a phonetic approximation.

Transcript (page 1)

Listen to the recording.


Transcript: Mary Billie

DATE: JUNE 11, 1980

(D) - Doris
(P) - Peggy
(C) - Claudia
(T) - Translation in Miccosukee




D: First tape made on May 10th, 1980. Recordings done by Doris Dyen and Peggy Bulger on Big Cypress Reservation. We are interviewing Mary B. Billy about the Seminole Indian...(Cut off)


D: Can I ask you to repeat Mary's full name and your full name?

C: Mary B. Billy and my name is Claudia C. John.

D: O.K. When was Mary born? Do you know?


C: She says she really doesn't know, but they say she was born on August 2nd about 1934.

D: About 1934. And what tribe do you belong to?

C: Seminole, Seminole.

D: And within the Seminole tribe, which group?

C: Miccosukee.

D: And what clan? Do you all have different clans also within the Miccosukee tribe that you belong to?

C: Big Town.

D: Big Town?


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C: Yes.

D: How long have you all lived in Big Cypress?


C: Ever since I was born.

D: Ever since you were born Claudia. And where did you live before that?


C: Hollywood.

D: Also Hollywood.

C: Uh, huh.


D: When they were living in Hollywood, were they living in chickees or were they living in, you know, western style housing.


C: Yes, they were living in chickees.

D: In the chickees. So that was some time ago.

C: Yes.

D: That was what? Maybe fifty... Was that fifty years ago or something like that. Forty years ago.


C: Thirty years ago or more.


D: Can I ask what were Mary's parents' names?


C: Both of them?

D: Both of them.

C: Frank Billy and Peggy Billy.

D: I see. And then her grandparents. Who were they?


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C: Ingram Billy and Elsie Billy.

D: And Ingram Billy is the Medicine Man. And he is still living?

C: Yes.

D: Right. He's living in this little area?

C: Yes.

(Children making noise in the background)

D: What language do you all speak?


C: Miccosukee.

D: I see. And is that related to Creek or is it a completely different language? Hard to say?

C: I guess it's different. I don't understand what they say.

D: And they don't understand a Creek, doesn't understand.

C: They can understand each other but I don't understand, I don't know the language.

D: And one final question. Does Mary miss living in a chickee?


C: No, she says she's use to a house.

D: Use to a house now. Yet out in the back she's building a chickee. But this is to work under, right? To make the dolls.

C: Right.



C: She said, when she's making dolls and makes it in the house, it gets kind of dirty. So she'd rather be out under the chickee when she's making dolls.

D: Is it also cooler outside when you are making them?

C: Yes.


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D: What?


C: She said, she'd rather live in the chickee where it is cooler and nicer but she doesn't like the mosquitos.

D: Yeh, the mosquitoes get bad some times.

P: What did they use to do about the mosquitos in the chickees. Did they just get use to them?



C: They used to burn, I guess, wood, I guess, to make it kind of smoke. Keeps them away.

D: Did they ever develop any kind of screen to put around?


C: In the evening, when they're going to bed, they used to use that mosquito net.

D: Oh, yes.

C: It's good for mosquitos.

D: Right. Well, I think now maybe we could ask a few questions about the doll making process. What I would like to have is for Mary to describe all the steps she went through yesterday one by one. And then you could explain what she's explaining.


D: And if she could explain it as though she were telling someone who can't see. So that person would know what she was doing.



D: What did, what did...

C: Do you want me to tell you what she said now?

D: Yes.


C: She said, if you are planning on making dolls. And first


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of all you have to find a palmetto (     ). And for that, you have to have knife and an axe, a file, and maybe some water. And you don't know where you are going to find the palmetto fibers. You got to look for the nice ones. So you have to go 30 or 40 miles to look for that stuff.

D: And how do you know when you've reached a place where the right palmetto fibers are?



C: Uh, she says she really doesn't know so you have to cut it and see, you know, take that, take it apart and see if it's good or if it's not she'll just go on until she finds it.

D: What is she looking for when she cuts the trunk of the palmetto apart?

C: She's looking for the ones that are smooth and not...

D: Not rough?

C: Not rough. Yes.


D: When we went there yesterday, some of those palmettos were burned. They were black on the bottom. Is that part of the way you choose?

C: Yes. If it's not it's really no use, I guess, unless it's burnt or at least maybe two months, you know, later.

D: I see. So they, so you look for a place where the palmetto has been burned within the last two months.

C: Yes.

D: Is that right?

C: Yes.

D: And so then when you find the right kind of palmetto then


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what's the next thing?

0241 C: First you have to cut the leaves that are standing on that thing and then after that you just cut that thing off. You use the smaller knife to take the palmetto fibers off.

D: In other words, you take the leaves off the top then you have just the trunk (horse making noise) the little trunk that's left of the stem.

And one other question. Do people set fires to get the right kind of palmetto?


C: That's what they used to do. But ever since that forestry came in I don't think they let anybody just start a fire. They have to watch it. They have to ask the forester to have one.

D: I see. Does Mary know when the forestry management is going to set a fire like that and then wait for a couple of months and go out and find them?

C: No, she just looks for it, I guess.

D: I see.


C: When she runs out, that's when she starts looking for it.

D: Right.


C: So she never knows where to find any. Like you would just go into a grocery store and get what you want. It's not like that. She has to hunt for it.

D: And that can take some time I guess.

C: Um, hum. And gas too.

D: Yeh, and gas too. What is the longest time it has ever taken for her to find the right palmetto? Can it take as long as


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an hour or two hours?

C: If you're lucky, it takes her about a half a day to find it or you can't find it. Sometimes it takes her all day. Sometimes she has to go out the next morning to look for it again.

D: What time of day does she go out when she is going to be cutting the palmetto?

C: Early in the morning when the sun is not too hot. I guess.

D: Like...

C: She has to prepare her own lunch and get some (     ) to take along.

D: And is this shortly after sunrise that she would go?

C: Around maybe six at the earliest.

D: And then how long would she stay out?

C: As long as she needs to. Until she gets enough of that palmetto fibers.

D: So she would come back home when then? After lunch or in the afternoon?

C: Sometimes in the afternoon or in the evening.

D: Uh, huh.

C: It depends on how far she has to go to get it.

D: So she can spend sometimes nine or ten hours out trying just to get enough palmetto.

C: Um, hum.

D: How many different palmetto plants does she usually cut when she is going out on a trip like that?



C: She said if she could find it early enough, she gets about fifty


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but it depends on the day. If she finds it late in the afternoon, she cuts about fifteen.

D: So between fifteen and fifty, depending. So how many dolls can you make from one palmetto?


C: It depends on the size of the doll. Sometimes you can get five out of it our four.

D: Five of the very small ones.



C: She says it depends on what size she wants. Like, you know, some of them are big. So she just goes ahead and cuts like for, some for the four inch and some for the six inch, and you know, the body.

D: So the different size dolls there's a four inch size and a six inch size and larger and still larger.

C: Um, hum. They're all different sizes so she goes ahead, she goes along cutting them after she brings them back she just cuts them up. So depending on the sizes when she looks at that palmetto fiber, I guess, she goes ahead and cuts them any size she thinks suitable, I guess.

D: I see.

P: Has the dolls always been made in those sizes or were they, did they all use to be one size?



C: It's always been like that, different sizes.

D: How long has Mary been making dolls?

C: She started when she was seventeen.

D: Really?


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C: Uh, huh.

D: Is that the typical age for someone to start learning to make dolls?

C: What do you mean?

D: Well, do people ever learn it when they're much younger, at then years of age or older?



C: She said, uh, when I guess they start real young, maybe around ten or something. Because they sit by their mothers and watching them making it but, she said she really don't know how she got to learn how to make them dolls.

D: And she learned from her mother?

C: Yes.

D: Does she know who her mother learned from?



(Wind chimes, bells ringing)

C: Can she ask her?

D: Sure go ahead.



C: She says she learned it from her grandmother.

D: Her grandmother.

C: Uh, huh. My mother's mother's grandmother.

D: That's pretty far back. So that way...

C: That's her father's side.

D: Right. Mary's mother's father's side. (horse in background)

C: Uh, huh. Her grandmother.

D: So the tradition of doll making goes back a pretty long way then.

C: Yes.


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D: Is it before 1900?


C: Yes.

P: Were they, ween the dolls were first made by your mother's grandmother, were they made just for the children or were they made to sell for the tourists.



C: They were for the kids to play with.

D: They were made...

C: Uh, huh. That's what they were making it for, for the kids to play with.

D: And then when did people get the idea to sell them to tourists then?


(Chime sounds)


C: She says she really don't know how they really started selling them to the tourists. But she said her grandmother, her great grandmother said that she wanted toys to look at. So they started taking it out in the boat with them when they're going out, I guess.

P: Where did the tourist first come? How did they get here?


C: She said...



C: She said some white person brought the toys down the canal because that's where they used to live, in a chickee. That's my mother's grandmother. That's where that white person asked her to, I guess, bring the dolls out so the tourists can look


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at them. And that's when they used to have alligator wrestling and everything. That's when they started selling the doll.

D: That's kind of a long time ago. Because you were saying the alligator wrestling hasn't been done really for a while around here.

C: Uh, hum.

D: One thing too, Claudia. Do you make the dolls as well? Did you ever learn?

C: Uh, I don't know. A little bit but I never tried to make to sell it. Cause there isn't any need, I guess. I just work.

C: You have another job.

C: Uh, huh. I have a job so I really don't sit down and make dolls.

D: Has your mother taught anyone else? Any of the other daughters or granddaughters?


C: The only ones that I know right now is my brother and me.

D: And you know from watching.


C: Uh, huh. From watching and she showing me how to do it. And I think my brother knows how to do it better than I do.

D: Really. Does he do very much of the doll making now?

C: No, he doesn't. He works too, so he doesn't make any.

D: But before, when he was younger, he used to make them.

C: Um, hum. When he was younger he used to make them.

D: So right now none of the younger grandchildren are learning.


C: They sometimes make it. I mean, they try it out. They don't really make it but they just try it out.


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D: Are there very many other doll makers here in Big Cypress?



C: There are some ladies that make it but they don't make the dresses for them, they just make the body and sell it.

D: I see. Let's get back for a moment now to the process. We stopped at the point where Mary has cut all the fibers out in the woods. And then she wraps them up to bring them back.


C: Uh, huh. She have a cloth with her and after she cuts them and gets it, that thing off it, she wraps it and brings it back. If it's dry enough, she goes ahead and makes the dolls. But if it's kind of wet, she has to let it dry out for a day before she can make it.

D: I see. And the wet time of year, when is that?

C: Mostly in the summer when its rainy season, I guess.

D: So, right about now.

C: Yeh.

D: What is the next thing that she does when the fibers are all dry and ready?


C: She'll go ahead and cut them to what size she needs to make the dolls. And then she'll make the head and what you say...

D: The inside of the head?

C: Uh, huh. She would make the head and then put the body on. And then she would put the palmetto fibers inside the doll to make it stand. After she finishes that, I guess she puts that cardboard and wraps that palmetto around it and put it on the bottom so stuff would not come out when it stands.

D: When she makes the head does she stuff it with palmetto fiber all the time?


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C: Yes.

D: She never uses anything else?


C: If she uses something else like cotton, the needle won't go through that cotton.

D: I see.

C: So she uses that palmetto fiber.

D: So for the head it has to be palmetto fiber.

C: Yes, uh, huh.

D: And the head is make separately from the body.

C: Yes. She makes the head first and then puts the body together.

D: How many heads does she usually make at one time? Does she do one doll all the way through or does she...


C: No, she'll make the heads like maybe she's going to make a hundred. She sometimes makes, uh, she can make hundred, she sometimes makes hundred but she don't. Sometimes she makes fifty and then she cuts up the body the same amount and then she starts working on it.


D: So at one time, she put enough fibers together to make fifty or a hundred dolls all at once. Just making the heads first and then making the bodies and then putting those together.

C: Um, hum.

D: And for the bodies, what does she use for stuffing?

C: Palmetto (     ).

D: Always? Or does she use cotton ever?


C: She uses that palmetto fiber sometimes but she uses cotton most of the time. She used to use that palmetto fibers.

D: So the traditional way was to use palmetto fiber to stuff the


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entire doll.

C: Um, hum.

D: But now you can use cotton for part of it.

C: Yes.

D: And after the body is stuffed, then what happens?

C: She'll cut a ...



C: She'll cut that cardboard out and make a circle bog enough where she stuffed it, uh, cotton. And then she'll take that palmetto fiber and put it around that cardboard or she'll make that circle, cut that circle. And then she'll, uh, put it on the bottom of that doll and sew it up so it can stand straight.

D: I see.

C: And it got that thing coming out. That stuffing.

D: Oh, so the stuffing won't come out of the body. When she finishes making the body, then what's the next step that happens?


C: Then she'll make the eyes for it and the mouth. And then after she finishes that, she'll start making the clothes for it.

D: When she makes the eyes, when we saw her making them, she does it a certain way. They're all sewn, right? The eyes and the mouth.

C: But I don't know how to explain that. I can't explain things like that.

P: You're doing really well.

D: Oh, it's beautiful.

C: (     )

D: You're a good interpreter. (pause) Would you like to take a minute and just relax?

C: Yeh, I guess.


[Page 15]


D: O.K.

C: How far do we still have anyway?

D: Well.

C: To do that, to do this, I mean.

D: Oh, about another half hour. There about.


C: I think I'm getting kind of bored. I don't want to do this kind of thing anymore.

P: Really.

C: I don't mind it if I could speak English good but I can't speak English good.

D: Oh, your English is just fine. We're enjoying listening to the description again.

C: I'm just getting pissed off because I can't speak English that good.

D: I know.

P: But you're doing really well.

D: And people will be interested to hear, interested to hear it.

P: We're almost done with the process. But I was interested in something, if you want to get off the process for now. When you were a little girl and you were growing up, did your mom ever tell you stories? Like I know our mothers told us stories. Did she ever tell you children's stores that you...

C: My grandmother did.

P: What were they about? Who was the main character?

C: Bear and a rabbit or sometimes a lion and a rabbit.

D: But a rabbit was the main...

C: Yeh.

D: The main one.


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C: Yeh, they always said he was a (     ).

P: Claudia, could you say the story in Miccosukee? Could you remember one?

C: Uh, uh.

P: No. You don't remember the whole story.

C: Uh, uh. I don't.

D: Does your mother know a story that she can tell us. Just in Miccosukee. Not in English.

C: I don't know. I don't have to repeat it, you know.

P: No you won't have to repeat it. If she could...



C: Do you want to record that?

D: Sure.

P: I'll just hold the microphone so that we can be real careful. If she could just tell her story in her own language of the rabbit and the bear because we have a story about the rabbit and the bear, too.

C: Oh, really

P: It might be the same story.

C: Uh, huh.


T: (Mary telling story in Miccosukee, speaking faintly)

0945 (Dragging noise)

0951 (Truck goes by)

0998 (Microphone noises)

1013 (Horse making noise)


P: Thank you. That was a long story. That was terrific. Was that about the rabbit and the bear?

C: Um, hum. When they became friends.


[Page 17]


P: Was the rabbit always smarter than everybody else? Was he always getting the best of everybody?


C: Yeh, he tries to be the smartest, smarter than anybody else. But he always fails.

D: He always fails?


C: Uh, huh. Like when the buzzard ate him up.

P: The buzzard ate him up?

D: And you were saying that these stories your mother used to tell you when you were going to bed?

C: Uh, huh.

D: To go to sleep?

C: Yeh. That's way I was about to go to sleep.


P: It's a beautiful language though. It sounds beautiful. I wish I could understand it because it's very musical. And so it flows right along. There was a little bit where she was, I guess it's where the rabbit was talking cause she was, she would repeat one word over and over again.

C: That part?

P: Yeh.


C: She was just saying that they were just sitting around for a long time or something. And the bear was cooking the beans.

P: Uh, huh.

C: And they were waiting for the beans to be cooked. And they were just sitting around.

P: Just sitting around.


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C: He was really crying or something. He was crying. Like when the bear was cooking the beans and he would go around this little shed or something and cut his stomach open to get some grease or oil or something to put it in the beans. And then that's what the rabbit seen, I guess. So he asked the bear to come visit him and the rabbit asked the bear to come visit him I guess. The bear went over there one day and so the rabbit gets up and starts cooking the beans just like the bear did. So the bear was just sitting around. And then the rabbit goes around the trees to do the same thing, you know. He cut his leg so there was no fat there so he tried to cut open his stomach to get the fat, but there was no fat there. So he just cut open his stomach and the guts just fell out. And that's why they were looking for a doctor to patch him up or something. But they couldn't get nobody to do it. But an old buzzard was standing and he said he would try to help him. And the buzzard asked the people, the things, to make a shed or something like it and it would have the top open. And that buzzard asked him to have some grapes and some water along with it. So I guess they were thinking he was going to fix the rabbit. And then, um he goes in there and the rabbit is really crying away. And the people ask him, the bear and friends, were asking him why the rabbit was crying. And the old buzzard just told them that they make grits too hard and he was putting it on the rabbit trying to fix him up. And then by the time the buzzard flew on top of that thing and he was


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saying that ya'll can't come and see him until around four days. So they went in there. He was quiet for a long time so they just went in there to see him and he was nothing but bones. And they tried to catch that buzzard they were chasing him but it just flew around and around and just went. And she said, after they get through telling the story, they used to tell them to just spit I guess after they get through telling the story to spit. And if you don't spit you will have a hunch back or something. That's what they used to tell us, so that they would have to spit after they heard the story.



D: We should probably spit, too.

P: Oh, oh.

C: That's what they used to do.

P: That's a good story because a buzzard is like that. Never trust a buzzard. That's a neat story cause I know that you had the rabbit and the bear and those characters like that too.

C: And there's one about a mouse too.

P: A mouse? Those are stories that ya'll would, mothers put their babies to sleep with that. That's good. That's terrific. Well, we're almost done actually.

D: One thing we didn't talk about was the doll clothes. You were saying your mother makes all the parts of the doll. She does the bead work when she's actually sewing the doll together. But she does the clothing before.

C: Uh, huh.

D: Right.


C: She'll cut strips of material and then put it together. There's


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two pieces goes on that doll on the bottom and the top. And then after she gets through with that, she'll put the clothes, the bottom on the doll and then sew it so that the skirt won't fall off. Then she'll sew it and then she'll put the top. First, I guess she'll put the cardboard on top of the doll's head and with that black material to make it look nice, I guess.

D: To make it look like hair?

C: Uh, huh.

D: Right.


C: To make it look like hair. And then after she does that, she put the top on. And then she'll sew that up too, so it won't fall off. And then after she sews that up, she puts the beads around that. And then...

D: To make the neck, around the neck?

C: Yes, uh huh.

D: To make the necklace. Also to make the earrings.

C: She makes the necklace and then after she does that, she goes through that head, the doll's head and then she puts the beads on there to make the earrings on both sides.

D: One thing I wanted to know. When she makes clothes for the dolls she uses traditional Miccosukee designs, doesn't she? You know, those for the patchwork designs. Even in the doll clothes there are some designs that are used.


C: Uh, she puts the design on the larger dolls. She doesn't do that to the four inch and the six inch. But the eight inch on up, they all have designs on that. She has to make the designs separate. And then she has to...


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D: Do those designs have a meaning for Seminole people?

C: Yes, they do, but.


(frog croaking)


C: She said it does mean something but she really doesn't know what it means. I mean, sometimes like it would have a heart shape like designs, heart shaped sometimes.


C: Some of them would look like a fire or something. Like this one, the one that's standing right there that would be like a fire like that.

D: Yes, sort of jagged lines.