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Voices of the Everglades: Fishing, Gigging and Roa...
Voices of the Everglades: Fishing, Gigging and Roa...: The traditions of the Everglades Natives/American Indians explained like fishing, gigging and roasting gar. Video by Guy Tubbs/news-press.com
Mad Bear Osceola totes a pair of gar fish he caught in a canal along Tamiami Trail near his home in Big Cypress National Preserve. Gar is a popular native food and is roasted over a cypress and oak fire. He and his family don't fish as often they did years ago due to the high mercury levels found in South Florida species. / Andrew West/news-press.com
Mad Bear Osceola plays with his nephew, Standing Bear Osceola. In their culture, a male serves as a mentor, teaching lifelong skills like building a chickee or dugout canoe. / Andrew West/news-press.com
LeRoy Osceola, 56, leads a traditional life in a Miccosukee camp inside Big Cypress National Preserve. He is part of four generations of independent natives. / Andrew West/news-press.com

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A light breeze carries the scent of burnt oak and cypress while Standing Bear Osceola scampers by a purple and crimson rooster at an Indian village deep inside the Everglades.

Maybe twice as tall as the talon-rearing chicken, Standing Bear, 20 months, is the newest member of this arm of the Bird clan, one of eight Indian family units still alive. His family is raising him in a traditional, non-reservation setting, which means he likely won’t regularly be exposed to English until kindergarten.

“He knows how to give a high five, but he won’t give it to you unless you ask in Miccosukee,” Standing Bear’s uncle, Mad Bear, says while watching over his nephew, whose name means “to learn and to come home” in Miccosukee.

The Osceola village is a living, breathing history of the area. The camp is home to about 10 people — the number varies with clan and family needs. Massive pots and pans, weathered from generations of use, line the cypress rafter inside the wall-less cooking chickees. Beside the chickee is a more modern structure — it functions like a stand-alone kitchen. Unlike modern homes that encompass all rooms into one structure, villages are made of individual rooms. There are no hallways or doors. The open structures offer a somewhat cool retreat during hot summers, and the lack of walls allows the Indians to always breathe fresh air.

The clan life

Clans are matriarchal and related to an animal or natural event. Where once hundreds of clans existed (the rest killed off or lost their cultural ties), eight Indian clans exist in Florida on and off the reservation: Bird, Panther, Otter, Wind, Toad (or Bigtown), Snake, Bear and Deer.

If the mother is in the Wind clan, all of her children will be as well. The role of the father and mother is different than in American culture, too. The children belong to the clan, who typically have input on who their daughters will marry. The clan also determines when a woman can have a child.

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Mad Bear is Standing Bear’s matriarchal uncle, a lifelong mentor.

Clan leader LeRoy M. Osceola, a member of the Otter clan and Mad Bear’s father, explains the family structure while sitting in a small modern building that he has converted into an art studio.

“In our way, if you pass 10 years old you become an adult,” LeRoy says. “So you go through a ceremony and you drop your baby name, your given name, your birth name and you’re given the Creator’s name, the names that he gave us. Over time, when an elder dies, the names are recycled according to the clans. The name I have is my grandfather’s.”

The core familyconsists of LeRoy; his mother, Peggy Osceola, in her 80s or 90s; wife, Cassandra, 51; sons, Mad Bear and Willie Osceola, 35; and daughters Lea Osceola, 34, Jenna Osceola, 27, and Sandra-Laurie Osceola, 23. They attended Miccosukee reservation school through grade 8, then went to high schools in the Miami area.

“They used to ask me if I lived in a teepee. Some people thought I lived in trees. They would do this,” Sandra-Laurie says while patting her hand over her mouth, her lips shaped into an O. “I can’t imagine why anyone would take something like that and make a joke about it.”

Technology, art and medicine

Traditional Indians don’t necessarily shun modern things or technologies. LeRoy has a couple of pickups, a cellphone, even an Internet site to sell his art, woodcarvings and T-shirt prints.

He also carves totem poles, or talking trees. One shows several Natives at the base layer. They’re holding above their heads the universe — which is represented by a ball inside four posts. The ball is wooden and can be moved by hand. On top of the universe is a bald eagle, which represents the Bird clan.

As a young man he built chickee huts in the Miami area. In 1987, he gave up the working world and started painting and carving totem poles for a living. He turned away from the modern world and turned his focus inward, on becoming a spiritual leader, raising non-reservation kids and guarding the traditional Osceola lands.

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Modest in height and broad of chest, LeRoy keeps a mohawk. It tapers from front to back and extends into a ponytail. Like traditional Seminole and Miccosukee patchwork clothing, artwork and totem poles, LeRoy’s body tells a story — his forearms and hands a canvas of long triangles, his upper arms marked with native depictions and spiritual codes.

A length of cord wrapped around his neck attaches to a small pouch that rests on his sternum. He won’t reveal the contents, but it likely contains traditional medicine, which can be made from plant and animal parts and is typically blended and blessed by a medicine man.

“It protects me,” LeRoy says, sitting under a sprawling oak tree, which supports a massive set of steel wind chimes that only clang during hurricane-like conditions.

Against what he won’t say.

There’s no need for a church building, as all facets of traditional life and cultural practices are woven into spiritual beliefs.

“People go to church and they have this picture of a white guy they pray to, but we don’t do that,” he says. “We go by words, what he told us. It’s thousands and thousands and thousands of years old, but we still practice it. We don’t have to get together. Nobody has to tell us every week what to do, what is wrong.”

Peggy Osceola, LeRoy’s mother, only speaks Miccosukee and related Native languages, which sometimes share common terms. Peggy is reclusive, at least when outsiders visit the camp. LeRoy translates for her.

She remembers a life without white people, a time when the Everglades was still largely controlled by Indians.

“It was real good because you don’t know all the bad things out there,” Peggy says when asked what life in the Everglades was like 80 years ago. “There were no cars or white people or machinery.”

Reservation ties

LeRoy’s wife, Cassandra, tradition says, will not be with him and the other traditional Indians in the Creator’s afterlife because she is a reservation Indian — which means she is going to a hellish existence after this life. LeRoy can’t explain exactly what she will face after death, but he says of her long-term future: “It’s bad.”

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Cassandra is a reservation Miccosukee. Her family signed her up when she was 2, she says. Cassandra’s afterlife was decided the moment her family put her name on Americanized paperwork. It’s not the reservation money, which can be $100,000 or more per year, that sealed Cassandra’s fate. The signature and acceptance of an outside culture has doomed her to an eternity of pain and torture, LeRoy and other traditional Indians say.

Reservation dividends help pay for food, vehicles, gas and the electric bill. But unlike some reservation Indians, Cassandra lives in the Osceola camp. Making money is not against traditional life. Indians traded goods and currencies for thousands of years. It’s OK for them to get a job, have health insurance, own a home, invest in savings plans and buy airboats and cars.

She finds solace in the present, where she can still have an impact on the future of her children and grandchildren.

“It doesn’t mean it’s the end of this world,” Cassandra says, explaining how she copes with the idea of going to a “bad” place after she dies. “I have children, and I can instill these things in them. I was never taught this (on the reservation). I learned most of it (the traditional life and laws) from LeRoy .”

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