White Medicine Man
At dinnertime in the 1920s, the houses on Monroe Street in Fort Myers were alive with activity. Through open windows, people could be heard clanking dishes, passing peas and asking for pepper. The activity in the home of W. Stanley Hanson was the same, but it sounded a bit different. His son would say, "I-nea ox-onee sub-ono nock-a-nee," ["I want some salt, man"]. When it was passed, he would reply, "sa-nob-us-chee nock-a-nee," ["thank you"]. At this white middle-class home, the children were expected to speak i:laponki, the Miccosukee dialect of the Seminoles. It was all part of their father's effort to preserve the language and culture of the Seminoles.
W. Stanley Hanson, or "Stanee Hansee" as the Big Cypress Seminoles called him, was ahead of his time. In an era when most whites believed the Seminoles were uncivilized, he admired their ability to coexist with nature. At a time when many well-meaning individuals thought the Seminoles should be removed to reservations and taught to live as white people, Hanson defended their traditional ways. Throughout his life, the slight man with angular features acted as their translator and defender. This support cost him financially and jeopardized his career, but in the end it showed the Seminoles that, despite hundreds of years of betrayal, some white people could be trusted. Some, like Hanson, could be friends.
Hanson was born on Nov. 27, 1883, the son of Dr. William Hanson and his wife, Julia Allen Hanson, in Key West, Fla. A year later the young family moved to Fort Myers. Like his friends and neighbors, young Stanley observed Seminole Indians at the general store. Most settlers knew only that the Seminoles traded venison and pelts and wore colorful costumes.
Thanks to his parents, Stanley knew more. After the United States purchased Florida from Spain in 1821, the new government agreed to protect Seminole lands. But as settlement increased, the same government encroached upon their territory, resulting in the Seminole Wars. Though the Seminoles never surrendered, by the turn of the century fewer than 100 survived in the marshes and swamps of southern Florida.
Hanson's father and mother admired and respected the Seminoles. Dr. Hanson opened his practice to them. Julia mobilized local church groups and community clubs to help in hard times. When he came home from school, Stanley often found young Seminole boys waiting outside his father's office. While his father treated the boys' parents, the children played together. Stanley probably learned his first words of the Seminole language then.
After attending Fort Myers schools, Stanley worked at the local post office and clerked at the Royal Palm Hotel while in his early 20s. In his off time, he explored the country and visited the Seminoles. In his early years, he advised two state-sponsored expeditions to the interior.
He met his future wife, Clara Petzold, while staying at a hotel in Tarpon Springs. The two were married in December 1912 and set up housekeeping in Fort Myers. A son, W. Stanley Jr., was born in 1914. A daughter named Marian followed in 1917.
Over his lifetime, Hanson changed careers frequently. He was a traveling correspondent for the Tampa Morning Tribune and the Savannah Morning News. He served as a tax collector and city councilman in Fort Myers. In 1914 he was appointed district inspector to enforce the United States migratory bird law in Florida and Alabama. Later he operated a radio store, served as a Lee County commissioner, and collected plant specimens for inventor Thomas Edison.
But what Hanson really wanted to do was work with the Seminoles. Throughout the teens he made frequent visits to the Glade Cross Mission, an Episcopal missionary clinic near Everglade (now Everglades City). There, a retired pharmacist named William J. Godden offered medicine and agricultural training to the Seminoles in the surrounding Big Cypress region. He founded the Seminole Indian Association in 1913. The organization's mission was to provide the Seminoles with funding and training. Although the non-profit organization had members all over the state, its officers were from the Fort Myers area.
Hanson got along well with Godden, often translating for him and explaining the intricacies of Seminole culture. After Godden died in 1914, the Episcopal diocese sent representatives from Miami to Glade Cross to assess the condition of the mission. To their surprise, they found the church's holdings neatly organized and accounted for, thanks to Hanson.
In 1920, aiding the Seminoles became easier when the Seminole Agency headquarters was relocated to Fort Myers. Lucien A. Spencer, the new head of the agency, frequently called on Hanson to interpret and assist the Seminoles. Hanson's son remembers how members of the tribe camped in their backyard:
I would get up in the morning and there would be sometimes as many as 25 Indians. They came during the night and camped out. When we went somewhere, we left the house unlocked-sometimes for as long as two weeks. We had a chicken coop in the backyard. We'd tell them to help themselves to the eggs. But a few days before we got back, they'd start saving eggs for us. They would come and go, and eventually they built a couple of Indian chickees. When the mosquitoes were bad they slept on the porch.
A 1925 letter from Hanson to a friend describes the death of a young girl and how Hanson helped with transportation, burial, housing and access to medical care:
We buried her here in the Fort Myers cemetery, along side of Cehoctee [Annie Billie]. I took the father and mother and small girl to [Immokalee?] that same afternoon, and the following day Wilson Billy [Estitholkee] brought his wife in to my home, and she has been in the hospital ever since. She has a good case of typhoid fever, beset with other complications, and we fear she will not be alive much longer, altho (sic) we are doing all we possibly can to save her. She is a splendid young woman, and I do trust we can pull her thru (sic). Her mother and little sister are with me during the wait.
But while Hanson was trying to help the Seminoles, politicians and land developers had other aims. In a surprise move, in 1926, the Seminole Agency office was transferred from Fort Myers to a 360-acre reservation in Dania, just south of Fort Lauderdale. The relocation was a direct attack on the Sem-inoles' traditional way of life. They were self-sustaining families who needed only limited assistance. Justified as a way to help the sick and "indigent," the move separated the Seminoles from their white supporters, in-cluding Hanson and Spencer.
Some of those behind the move believed they should "civilize" the Sem-inoles and make them conform to white culture. Others sought to seize Seminole land.
Decades before, settlers and government representatives were content to let the Seminoles live in what were considered uninhabitable wetlands. But in the boom time of the 1920s, developers began to eye Seminole lands for irrigation projects and subdivisions. If a majority of the approximately 500 remaining Seminoles relocated to the reservation, it would be easier to justify moving out a few stragglers. In the end, with encouragement from Hanson, most remained.
In 1927, a real estate development firm near Hialeah persuaded a Seminole named Tony Tommie to proclaim himself chief. He then agreed to surrender Seminole lands to the company. Hanson swiftly met with council elders and dispatched a letter to the U. S. Senate committee with oversight. Thanks in part to his quick action, the land deal was quashed.
The Seminoles demonstrated their respect at the tribe's annual Green Corn Dance, where Hanson was asked to play a role determining punishment for a serious crime. Little Billy (Corn-aptachee) had killed another man in a drunken rage. W. Stanley Hanson Jr. remembers how tribal members called on his father for advice:
One of the elders, old Billy Fewell, he took off his turban and he put it on my father's head. 'Now you me, and me you.' So my father sat in his place. They talked together about the man and what to do. My father was thinking about Solomon and he said, 'If you kill this man, then you will have two families without a head.' He told them that as punishment, he should support the other man's wife and family. And that's what they did.
The decision was reported in newspapers throughout the state. An American Eagle article declared it "much more sensible and just . than the usual procedure of killing the murderer and forcing his dependent wife and family upon the world to be cared for as objects of charity." The white press called Hanson a "white medicine man" because he had been asked to join the council of elders in making the decision. This title stuck with Hanson for the rest of his life.
Hanson hoped to assume a paid position with the Seminoles. In 1928 he learned that Spencer, the head of the Seminole Agency, was planning to retire, and let it be known that he wanted the job. Hanson was the perfect candidate. He spoke the language, understood the culture and knew the environment. The Seminoles knew and respected him. He only had one problem: Spencer had not resigned.
The humiliation passed, but stung again when the position was indeed vacated. Many in Fort Myers, Estero, Naples and the Everglades supported him, and Congressman Herbert J. Drake personally recommended him. The Seminoles of the Big Cypress were behind him. In the end, it didn't matter. The southwest coast of Florida held little influence compared to the powerbrokers in Tallahassee and the east coast. The incident with Tony Tommie had made Hanson powerful enemies. Hanson protested, but to no avail.
John Collier, the commissioner of Indian Affairs who attended the media event promoting Tony Tommie, put it bluntly in a letter: "You are not a Seminole Indian. .You have been for years a candidate for a position in the Seminole work of the Indian Office. That is your inalienable right. But, it . is foolish to make vociferous protests against an alleged incident which as a matter of common knowledge and of fact never took place."
In the end, Reverend James L. Glenn was appointed to the position. After being passed over, many men would have walked away. Hanson chose to continue his work with the Seminoles. In 1933, he reorganized the Seminole Indian Association to better serve the needs of local peoples. In one year he traveled the state speaking to thousands in an effort to drum up membership. The new head of the Seminole Agency took it as a direct attack, calling it a "divisive influence which undercut governmental efforts to rehabilitate the tribe."
The 1930s brought economic decline and the Great Depression to the state. Hanson tried to help the Seminoles raise money to buy what they could not grow or hunt. Tourist enterprises were selling mock-Seminole handicrafts: baskets and quilted clothing. He helped the Seminoles trademark their goods and find places to sell their traditional crafts.
As the Depression deepened, the Seminoles had difficulty finding enough food because white settlers hunted on Seminole lands. Flooding made things worse. A 1930 Tropical News headline lamented: "INDIANS STARVE AS HIGH WATER CUTS OFF GAME." Hanson and others formed a relief party, bringing food and medicine to the tribe.
Although the Hansons were getting by, the Depression made life difficult. Like kids everywhere, Hanson's son and daughter frequently asked for nickels and dimes, making their requests in Seminole. His son would say, "I-nee kee-naw-ee su-bon-o nock-a-nee," which, roughly translated, means, "I money want, man" in Miccosukee. His father would answer "yes" or "no" in Seminole. Even as a young boy, his son knew the exercise was more than a language lesson. "We'd go off without embarrassing him in front of other people. They didn't know he didn't have any money."
During the 1930s, Hanson learned more about the earlier effort to divest the Seminoles of their land. Evidently, powerbrokers had heard rumors swirling that oil and gas lay beneath the Big Cypress. During the Depression, there was less interest in exploratory drilling, but when the economy improved, the threat would re-emerge. In a 1930 report to Congress, Hanson warned, "When the time comes, or if oil or other minerals are found in that section of Florida . the Seminoles will be obliged to abandon their homes and move on-where?"
After a lifetime of volunteering with the Seminoles, in 1937, Hanson finally ob-tained a paid position. Under the auspices of the Civilian Conser-vation Corps, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's recov- ery programs, Hanson began work as a guide and interpreter. Because the government did not have a classification for the job, he was listed as a mechanic on the pay roster.
On April 4, 1945, after decades of aiding the Seminoles, W. Stanley Hanson died from a cerebral aneurysm. He was mourned by family, friends and, of course, the Seminoles of the Big Cypress. Jimmie Osceola, who now lives in Hollywood, Fla., learned of his passing through a letter sent to him at boarding school. "He was a very kind person. I [have] never seen him angry or mad. He was always joking," Osceola said.
David Blackard, director of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Clewiston, put it best: "He worked tirelessly for them [the Seminoles] and was snubbed by the federal government. Others wanted to improve the Indians and make them something they weren't. Hanson was more in keeping with how we think today. He helped them especially in dealings with white people. He proved to them that a white man could be their friend. He provided them an opportunity to trust someone outside the tribe."