Lights of Miami Lure the Young Away From a Vanishing Tribe


A tiny tribe of American Indians that was never vanquished in two 19th century wars with U.S. troops has survived through generations of solitude in the vast Everglades of south Florida.

But as the River of Grass has shrunk under the steady march of developers and farmers, the Miccosukee tribe's culture, if not its very existence, is threatened.

The lights of Miami are visible on the eastern horizon at night, a seductive lure for the tribe's young people to exchange a rugged life in the wetlands for one of fast cars, hard liquor and credit cards.

If too many more young people leave and marry outsiders, then the tribe of about 700 could dwindle to nothing.

At the time man first landed on the moon, many Miccosukees still lived in chickees--thatch-roof huts built on stilts. Small branches were used for walls so breezes could pass through. The Indians got around in canoes.

Today they drive pickup trucks and live in modern homes in suburban Miami or on the reservation along U.S. 41 that cuts across the Everglades. None lives any longer in the chickees, says Steven Tiger, a Miccosukee.

"Our people tasted the apple," he says. "They want the lights and the air-conditioning."

Tiger acknowledges he is one of the Space Age Indians. He leads a rock group, Tiger Tiger, which has produced several CDs.

Tiger, 47, recalls living in a chickee as a child and often going out to find a turtle to eat for breakfast. He and his wife, who is not Indian, live in Lago Mar, one of those Miami suburbs where the houses all look alike.

The couple drives daily to the tribe's A-frame public relations office on U.S. 41, next to a restaurant run by the tribe.

Tiger's father, William Buffalo Tiger, 76, a former chief, runs an airboat business down the road. On a recent day, when the tourist attraction was closed, Buffalo Tiger pondered the tribe's thirst for isolation while at the same time operating a bingo hall and a casino.

Buffalo Tiger may yearn for the old ways, but he, too, lives in town, across the street from a Target store.

Sitting motionless on a bench with wooden slats, along a canal skirting the Everglades, Buffalo Tiger doesn't seem to struggle with such dilemmas, perhaps because the Miccosukees believe the end of the Earth is near and so it doesn't much matter anyway.

"This will all be like a desert someday," he says. "It isn't long until the Breathmaker returns. He's going to destroy the Earth. Hurricanes will get worse. It will even snow here. There will be earthquakes here."

The signs, handed down by tribal elders for hundreds of years, are now appearing, he says. Men marry men. Women marry women. Drug use is rampant. Fish and turtles are dying. And, probably most important, the Everglades wetland is being decimated, an indication that the earth will be barren and people will starve.

"I remember when I was a boy that there were so many fish that you could just rock the canoe, and the fish would pour into the canoe with the water that spilled over the sides," he says.

"The water has gone bad now. This water is polluted, and I mean polluted. There are chemical fertilizers washing down from the north where the sugar farmers are. There is even mercury in the water. Factories are dumping things in the water."

Television, perhaps more than any other single thing, is responsible for tearing away at the fabric of Miccosukee traditions, Buffalo Tiger says. Young people watch it, and "they want money and the things it will buy. If they have a car, they want a newer car or they want a boat."

As more and more Miccosukee young people move away and marry outside the tribe, and other youngsters feel more at home in a pool hall than a tribal council, concern rises over how long the Miccosukees will survive, Buffalo Tiger says.

"As for traditional life, a lot of young people don't accept it like I did when I was a boy. And we don't have the food we used to have--fish, corn, pumpkins, turtles, birds.

"Maybe half the Miccosukees feel strongly about the old ways."

One of the old ways is the matriarchal society of the Miccosukees. Everything of value in the family is handed down by the women. Some families don't accept that any longer, the old chief says.

"You have to respect woman because she is much stronger than man," he says.

One of Buffalo Tiger's sons is an engineer with General Motors in Detroit. The other son, Steven Tiger, doesn't want to break entirely with the Everglades.

"At night you're alone here," Steven Tiger says. "You get the sense of really being alone. I feel like an Indian did 200 years ago. Then I wake up the next day and it's back to real life."

When he was a boy, he recalls, he and some friends were having a contest to see who could stay underwater the longest. When he surfaced, he found about 15 cottonmouth snakes swimming toward him.

The experience inspired not fear, he says, but a deep respect for the Everglades. This reverence disturbs him when tourists aren't content with an airboat ride, buying Indian crafts and taking photos of the resident gators that hang out in the canals outside the restaurants and at tourist airboat camps.

"They say they want to see the real thing, not some tourist trap," he says. "I say, 'You mean it's like if I paid you $10 to come into your house in the morning and see you get up, brush your teeth, go to the bathroom, eat breakfast and beat your wife?' "

Such tourists, embarrassed, retreat into their tour bus, he says.

Unlike some tribes that recognize someone with one-sixteenth Indian blood to be a member, the Miccosukees limit tribal membership to one-half.

His mother was a white woman. She and his father, Buffalo Tiger, eventually divorced, and his mother went back to Boston.

There is more intermarriage than there used to be, and that does not bode well for the tribe surviving, Steven Tiger says. His own two children cannot be tribal members.

The Everglades, often referred to as a swamp, is actually a 45-mile-wide sheet flow of water across South Florida that empties into Florida Bay.

It is usually shallow enough that you can walk across it, but that is not advisable. Alligators and poisonous snakes abound. Bites from swarms of mosquitoes can leave a bare arm with so many bumps in a few seconds that it looks like an ear of corn. Sweltering heat overwhelms even the hardiest of people.

Looking out across it, the Everglades appears to be a sea of long-bladed saw grass, so-named because its serrated blades can rip open skin. Marjorie Stoneman Douglas called it the River of Grass in her 1947 book "The Everglades," a name often used today.

The Everglades was home to several tribes of Indians when Andrew Jackson tried to dislodge them in the early 1800s. Jackson had many shipped off to what was to become Oklahoma.

He referred to the Florida Indians as Seminoles, a word unknown to the Indians themselves, who were different bands of the Creek Nation.

A few Seminoles, some of the Miccosukees and some escaped slaves who fought alongside the Indians for about 30 years never surrendered, and the Army lost interest in subduing them when the Civil War began.

It was not until about 150 years later that the Miccosukees were recognized as a separate tribe. Tired of foot-dragging by Washington, Buffalo Tiger and a group of other tribal elders went to Cuba in 1962 and persuaded Fidel Castro to recognize the Miccosukees as a sovereign nation.

The ploy worked. Washington soon recognized the Miccosukees as a separate tribe.

In the 1900s, Steven Tiger says, Indians could paddle their canoes through the Everglades all the way to where downtown Miami today spirals upward with office buildings and condominiums.

Today, the Everglades start about 40 miles west of downtown, with virtually everything between filled in and paved over.

"For the most part, our people were left alone," Steven Tiger says. "I can remember being told to never let a white man get hold of you. You could be put in jail or be sent to Oklahoma."

The Miccosukees have no written language, he says. The tribal school, not compulsory, relies mostly on English, but teaches "proper Miccosukee."

White people have tried to write about the Miccosukees, but the stories don't tell anything about the tribe, Steven's father says. "They just tell stories like Pocahontas."

"White people are never going to stop trying to make us live like white-skinned people. That's something we have to fight for.

"The Breathmaker told us this is where we belong, that we are caretakers of the Everglades."

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