Mary B. Billie began making dolls when she was 17. The tradition of doll making in Mary's family can be traced back to before 1900. Mary learned to make dolls from her mother, who learned it from her grandmother. Mary's grandmother at first made dolls just for the children to play with; later, they were sold to tourists.
Within the Seminole tribe, Mary belongs to the Big Town clan. Mary has lived in Big Cypress since her daughter Claudia was born, and before that she lived in Hollywood, on Florida's Atlantic coast. While in Hollywood, she lived in a chickee, a traditional Seminole open-air shelter. In Big Cypress, Mary lives in a house but has her workspace in a chickee because it is cooler.
In June of 1980, Florida folklorists Doris Dyen and Peggy Bulger interviewed Seminole doll maker Mary B. Billie and her daughter, Claudia C. John at the Big Cypress Indian Reservation. They discussed the history and practices of Seminole doll making. Billie speaks in the Mikasuki language. Her daughter, 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, words are often spelled the way they sound.
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Claudia C. John: 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. If you're lucky, it takes her about half a day to find it, or if 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.
If you are planning on making dolls, uh, first of all you have to find the palmetto fibers. And for that you have to have a knife and a[n] axe and a file and maybe some water. And you don't know where you're going to find the palmetto fibers. You got to look for the nice ones. So you have to go 20 or 30 miles to look for that stuff.
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The first step in making a traditional Seminole doll is to search for the palmetto. It can take between half a day and two days to find the right kind. Mary will cut between 15 and 50 palmetto plants in a day. One palmetto plant will provide fiber for four or five dolls.
Mary cuts the fibers while she is out in the woods. Then she wraps them in cloth and brings them back to her workspace. If the fibers are dry enough, she makes the dolls. But if they are wet, she has to let them dry out for a day before she can make the dolls.
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Mary might make 50 dolls at one time. She makes the heads first. The head is always stuffed with palmetto fibers. The body is traditionally stuffed with palmetto fibers, but Mary often uses cotton. Then she cuts a circle of cardboard and sew it to the bottom of the doll so the doll can stand up straight.
Next she sews the eyes and the mouth. When that is finished, she makes the clothes and sews them onto the doll. Sometimes the hair is made with cardboard and black material. Other dolls have yarn hair with ponytails and braids. Mary adds beads for the necklace and the earrings. She uses traditional Miccosukee designs for the clothing of the larger dolls.
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This is what the doll looks like before Mary puts on its clothes, hair and jewelry. She usually makes the clothes ahead of time, so that they will be ready when she wants to make her dolls. For the smaller dolls, Mary uses simple decoration, but the clothes for the larger dolls use one or more of six traditional Seminole patchwork designs.”
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Seminole women have worn their hair in various different styles over the years, and the dolls reflect this. The high hairdo, mounted with cypress bark or, later, cardboard, was popular in the 1930s and some women still styled their hair like that in the 1980s. But Mary also makes some dolls with yarn hair that show modern styles.
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The last step is making the doll's bead jewelry. The jewelry also shows a popular Seminole style of earlier times.”
Claudia C. John: “My grandmother used to do that. She used to wear a lot of beads. That's what they used to do. They would be heavy. 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.”
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